Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Doc Fortnight ’16: France is Our Mother Country

If you could chose a country to be your colonial power, there is no question it would be the United Kingdom. They sure knew how to train civil servants. On the other hand, nobody would voluntarily opt for France. Although they were not quite as bad as the Belgians, the French have had the hardest time accepting the end of the colonial era, often with tragic results. Rwanda certainly proved both points when it became the first non-UK colony to join the British Commonwealth. It had been French. Rithy Panh echoes that critical ambivalence towards the French colonial experience in his archival docu-essay, France is Our Mother Country (clip here), which screens as part of the 2016 Doc Fortnight at MoMA.

Nothing screams “imperialist” like a white suit and a pith helmet. Apparently, that was the uniform of choice for French colonial oligarchs in Indochina. In his spliced together pseudo-narrative, Panh captures plenty of similarly outfitted Frenchmen overseeing factory and plantation work or getting drunk at garden parties. Their images have not aged well, but that is why they are so on-point for Panh.

Essentially, the film’s arc can be summed up as “they came, they exploited, and they left the land in political and military chaos.” However, despite their damning fashion sense and the air-headed French party girls cavorting on sacred religious sites, Mother Country never lowers the final coup de grâce. In fact, the footage of a 1920s or 1930s rain forest medical clinic looks relatively progressive, especially for the times.

Panh has a shrewd eye for imagery, but he never fully establishes a clear cause-and-effect chain of events linking the French imperialist adventurism of the early Twentieth Century with the Communist madness of the late Twentieth Century. He also indulges in the equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel when quoting one of the era’s painfully virulent racial theorists. Yet, Marc Marder nearly saves the day singlehandedly with his distinctive, frequently jazz-influenced score.

Aside from Panh’s subversive editorial sensibilities, there is not so much to take-away from Mother Country. It lacks the beauty, grace, and anger of his Oscar-nominated masterwork The Missing Piece, but that is a hard film to be judged against. Perhaps this represents a pragmatic strategy for a follow-up, precisely because it is so different. Almost recommended solely for Marder’s themes (rather than Panh’s), France is Our Mother Country is mostly just grist for professional Third World Studies majors when it screens again tonight (2/24) as part of this year’s Doc Fortnight at MoMA.