The history of Communism is littered with mass graves, from the Holodomor in Ukraine to the Killing Fields of Cambodia. Coming to terms with the past is particularly difficult in the Southeast Asian country for at least two reasons. For one thing, the Khmer Rouge is still in power. They simply changed their name and rebranded themselves. Even more troubling for families, the lack of proper burials makes it nearly impossible to hold the Buddhist rituals necessary to help loved ones move on with their after-life. Acclaimed filmmaker Rithy Panh searches for his father’s earthly remains in the meditative documentary, Graves Without a Name, which releases today on DVD.
Even though they often focus on the crushing enormity of the Cambodian genocide, Panh’s documentaries tend to be acutely personal in scope. In The Missing Piece, his defining masterwork (thus far), Panh told his family’s tragic history with carved wooden figurines. Graves is possibly even more personal, but less narrative-driven. We watch as Panh undergoes purification ceremonies to prepare him for further rites that will hopefully lead to the location of his father’s body. However, it seems there is just too much mournful static around the work camp where his father was executed.
In between rituals, Panh intersperses long-take interviews with genocide survivors. One was a peasant “Old Person,” who initially fought with the Khmer Rouge before becoming sickened by their torture, rape, and mass murder. The other was a much abused and despised “New Person” from the city. Both give harrowing testimony in a matter-of-fact tone produced by their resignation they will never see justice done in their lifetimes.
There have been many documentaries produced on the Cambodian genocide (several of them by Panh), but the crimes described in Without a Name still pack a visceral punch. At times, Panh’s closeness to the subject matter leads to a slight blurriness of focus and Randal Douc’s French narration is undeniably overwritten, but the power of this film remains raw and immediate.
Throughout the film, Panh and co-cinematographer Prum Mesa prove the haunting power of starkly simple images. Without a Name directly relates to the multimedia requiem documented in Aviva Ziegler’s Wandering Souls, which Panh collaborated on. However, Ziegler’s doc was largely a work of reportage (albeit one of importance), whereas Without a Name is a deeper, more unified cinematic statement.
Graves Without a Name is yet another reminder of what happens when ideologies that oppress the individual in the name of the collective take over the reins of state power. It bears repeating: capitalism is a human right. Highly recommended for its truth and artistry, Rithy Panh’s Graves Without a Name releases today on DVD.