Monday, November 17, 2008

Margaret Mead: Paper Cannot Wrap Up Embers

About five or six years ago, Cambodia was the new in place for hipster expats. I hope this wasn’t the attraction for them. Life is brutish and short for Phnom Penh prostitutes. Drug addiction, sexually transmitted diseases, and unwanted pregnancies are facts of life for prostitutes everywhere, but abusive western johns are the greatest occupational hazards endured by the women featured in Rithy Panh’s Paper Cannot Wrap Up Embers, which screened as part of the 32nd Margaret Mead Film & Video Festival.

On the surface, Embers is something of a departure for Panh, a Cambodian filmmaker based in France, whose past films have documented the human misery caused by the Khmer Rouge. However, Embers is actually more closely related to his past films than is immediately apparent. At least one of the featured women was forced into a life of prostitution after the UN incompetently repatriated her family back into Cambodia, after taking sanctuary in a Thai refugee camp. Heckuva job, UN. NGO’s do not emerge looking much better. At one point, two women discuss one do-gooder group that offers money for prostitutes’ funeral expenses, but as they note, no help while they are still alive.

Panh’s film is a tough viewing experience. You see the physical ravages of A.I.D.S. and drug use on the prostitutes sharing a Phnom Penh flat. They live a joyless existence toiling for a madam the audience never sees. The only laughter of the film comes at the expense of the Madam’s useless “tout,” who shares the women’s flat and doles out their meager payments.

Clearly, Panh has established a high degree of trust with the women, because we see them in some very intimate situations, speaking frankly about the mistakes which consigned them to such lives. However, nothing of their working lives is shown, aside from the proverbial street walking. When they speak of their encounters, it is only of the dangers they face. As a result, there is no explicit material in the film, aside from the plight faced by the women, which is truly obscene.

This is a hard viewing experience. Panh’s camera never blinks, showing all the black eyes and lesions that afflict the women of Embers. The greatest shame for western audiences is the repeated fear expressed by the women of their western “clients.” Again, a wary eye should fall on those hipster expats. Embers illustrates how tragedy compounds over time. It is a heartbreaking film that leaves viewers feeling helpless.