Rithy Panh’s Gibier D’Elevage
When I went to the Bophana media archive in Phnom Penh today to poke around in their splendid collection, I ran into a large crowd, that was waiting to see the rough cut of the new film of Bophana’s founder, film director Rithy Panh. It was organized for the crew, but I was kindly let in to watch Gibier D’Elevage nevertheless.
I do not want to give away too much, as I was not supposed to be there in the first place, but this is a fine film, that somehow harks back to Rithy Pan’s first feature “Rice People”. Not only does it take place in a small Cambodian village and has been filmed with a cast of amateurs. But it is also based on a novel that is not Khmer, but that Panh was able to successfully adapt to the Cambodian context. While “Rice People” was based on the novel Ranjau Sepanjang Jalan (No Harvest But a Thorn) by Malaysian author Shahnon Ahmad, his new film is based on the Japanese classic Shiiku (The Catch) by Nobel laureate Oe Kenzaburo, that has been made into a film before by Nagisa Oshima in 1961.
An American war plane that has been strafing the Ho Chi Minh trail in Cambodia crashes close to a small village. The Khmer Rouge – that had taken over control of this part of Cambodia in 1972 already – takes the black pilot as prisoner, and a bunch of village children is put in charge of guarding him. While Oshima turns this parable-like plot into a dissection of Japanese xenophobia, Panh focusses on the interaction between the nameless pilot and the village children, who treat the American soldier as a kind of pet.
Making interesting use of documentary footage from the Vietnam war, Panh has created a kind of war Kammerspiel that for once looks at the Vietnam war (and its little-known Cambodian offshoot) from the perspective of its victims, not from the elevated positon that most US Vietnam war films adopt. The film begins with revoltingly beautiful archival footage of the bombings filmed from the war planes, before it shows what the war looked like from the perspective of the helpless subjcts of those attacks. In that sense, Gibier D’Elevage is a companion piece to the arguably greatest film on the Vietnam war, The Wild Field, made in 1979 by Vietnamese director Nugyen Hong Sen.