Review: Graves Without a Name (2018)


Graves Without a Name (French: Les Tombeaux Sans Noms) opens with director Rithy Panh having his head delicately shaved by a monk before observing a mourning ritual. Soft clay figurines are gently carved by hand, laid to rest in a sheath of banana leaves, with mounds of rice and some accompanied by a single cigarette. 

Like the films in his body of work, Graves Without a Name (2018) concerns the atrocities committed during the reign of the Khmer Rouge and the legacy that it has come to impart on a nation. For Panh, the subject is personal, as he himself lost his father, mother, sisters, and other relatives during the genocide. Framed by his ongoing journey in the hopes of putting the spirits of his family to rest, the resulting film is deeply symbolic, as he engages in religious rituals to find his family’s remains: an elderly woman spins a bell and attempts to communicate with a spirit; in another scene, a piece of paper is symbolically wrapped in a sliver of white cloth and placed in a small coffin, before it is burnt.


With such rituals in mind, objects acquire a new meaning: they signify fragments of a collective past, a universal remnant of a loss that cannot be named. Panh interviews rural farmers who survived the regime and they recollect the horrors they experienced. A spoon is not simply a spoon: as one farmer described, without a spoon one could not eat; spoons were so valuable, they wore them around their necks at all times as they worked. As he recounts his story, a shot of a spoon being carefully cleaned fills the screen. 

When an interviewee speaks of how food was rationed out at the communal dining hall, small piles of rice are delicately laid out on a cloth, visually conveying how little one had to eat. A large bowl of watery soup with flecks of green and barely-there fragments of rice is suddenly crowded by spoon after spoon, dipping into what little is left. Items such as clothing, buttons, fragments of bone, or a tooth, all come to mean something else as they come to signify a life, though without its distinguishing elements: "Mass crime gets rid of the being, age, origins, memories, glances, names".


Other stunning visual moments feature photographs of Panh’s family, placed in a diorama of the Cambodian landscape, at the heads of small graves, before fading away. Throughout the film, scenes of the regime are projected onto a screen propped up on bare land, images of productivity as men and women dutifully march and go about carrying baskets, as if re-enacting history exactly where it took place. When coupled with Marc Marder's score, the result is an unsettling atmosphere, characterised by an undeniable tension born out of the suffering being spoken of but an undeniable sensation of passivity, as the perpetrators are long gone, removed from the resulting social fabric that still lives with suffering.

Narrated in French by Randal Douc, the interviews are juxtaposed by selections from Christophe Bataille, Jean Cayrol's screenplay for Alain Resnais' Night and Fog, poems by French surrealist Paul Eluard, from Panh's own book, The Elimination. I would not have known it, had I not looked it up, as the selections are befitting, hauntingly spoken as a shot pans over a stunning rural landscape, only for viewers to be reminded, that these are the haunted lands that the farmers speak of. “Nature is an ambiguous grave”, as the narrator describes.


Sitting in these fields, farmers candidly describe not only the hunger, but the fear, cannibalism, violence, rape, and execution, that they witnessed during these years. The past etches itself on their hands and their faces, worn and exhausted, yet they tell their stories so bluntly and so plainly, one after the other, that the viewer, too, is desensitised to it. They acknowledge how they knew of some complicit in the hatred expressed during those years, as one farmer tells a story about an aunt who willingly denied city-dwellers from Phnom Penh the appropriate amounts of rice that they were entitled to. 

One farmer ruminates on the nature of “bak sbat”––broken courage. He argues that it is the legacy of trauma, a psychological disorder, that survivors have passed onto their children and their grandchildren. A shared trauma that has shaped the collective consciousness of the present, it materialises as they inability to address problems and the unwillingness to fight back. The atrocities of the past are carried forward to the present and who bears the brunt of it but the survivors themselves? One of the interviewees discusses the nature of karma and how bad karma appears to be so ubiquitous for the people of Cambodia: "Why does karma weigh on so many Cambodian people? Why is it so intense here. It doesn't happen anywhere else, just Cambodia. This karma, we didn't deserve it. It was imposed upon us. It isn’t the outcome of our actions. Our leaders imposed it upon us." And knowing that fills one with a deep sense of injustice.


As beautiful of a film it is, meditative, nuanced, and respectful in its exposition of the atrocities committed, Graves Without a Name is a heavy watch. Not only did I find myself emotionally exhausted and heavy-hearted, but I also felt angry after seeing it. To see a generation so scarred by the past yet still so willing to reflect on what had taken place, is staggering––as a viewer, I would like to say there is a sense of relief as they tell their stories, but I don't know if I can. There is pain, remorse, guilt, but most of all, necessity, in these stories being told. With Cambodia's young population, most of today's citizens are now too young to remember what took place in those years,  and though museums and media such as Panh's body of work exist today, for most, it is only through the passing down of these narratives that this part of the country's history is rightfully remembered. 

For the most part, these survivors who have tried to begin anew, appear to find themselves tethered to the past, with a collective trauma looming as death lingers in the air and rests in the soil, as spirits continue to roam across the lands on which they dwell: “The pain remains imprinted in our hearts. A life like this marks you for life.” 

Melissa Noelle Esguerra is a multifaceted writer who likes to explore all things pertaining to art, film, culture, and literature. She obtained her BA (Hons) in English Language & Literature with a minor in Linguistics from New York University. After having spent the last four years in New York City, she now resides in Singapore. 

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