The Horses of a Cavalry Captain (Die Pferde des Rittmeisters, Clemens von Wedemeyer, 2015, Germany, 10 min, Digital)
La France est notre patrie (Rithy Panh, 2015, Cambodia/France, 75 min, Digital)
Despite consisting of images fixed in celluloid, no film is ever static, something especially true in the case of documentaries. The two films in this program each work with found footage in order to usurp and reimagine their materials' initial (and intended) meanings—meanings tied to histories of colonialism and conquest. Utilizing voice-over, text, and editing the films emphasize the polysemy of images, while engaging in broader histories of circulation and engaging the spectator as an active participant in meaning-creation.
Clemens von Wedemeyer’s short film The Horses of a Cavalry Captain (Die Pferde des Rittmeisters)—part of the artist’s extended P.O.V. project—adopts footage shot by his grandfather, a Wehrmacht officer and amateur cameraman. Through a close analysis of the footage von Wedemeyer re-reads the films’ horses as a subtle, subversive metaphor.
La France est notre patrie by Cambodian-born Rithy Panh (The Missing Picture) continues the filmmaker’s examination of his country’s fraught history through an assemblage of footage shot in French Indochina through 1954. Punctuated by ironic mock silent film intertitles by writer Christophe Bataille vaunting the colonial project ("France has brought the light and intellect of its laws”), the violence inherent in the assumed-neutral footage is writ especially clear.
Tuesday 21 February
Doors and Coffee: 6:30pm
Screening and presentation 7:00pm
Image Arts Building (IMA 307), Ryerson University
Rithy Panh was born in Phnom Penh. He studied filmmaking at Paris' Institut des Hautes Études Cinématographiques. His films include The Land of Wandering Souls (99), S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (02), The Sea Wall (08), and Duch, Master of the Forges of Hell (11). His film The Missing Picture (13). won the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. His most recent film, Exile (2015) was selected as a special screening at Cannes.
Clemens von Wedemeyer (b. 1974, Germany) studied Fine Arts at the Academy of Visual Arts, Leipzig. Some of his works are narratively structured (short) films, others consist of reflections and experiments in cinema and a third body of his works present multi channel installations. With this practice von Wedemeyer moves between the fields of art and cinema, with his films finding their form based on a conceptual relation to content. His subjects include questions of group dynamics, power relations and historical resonances in the everyday. Recent solo exhibitions include: Barbican Centre, London (2009), Centro Galego de Arte Contemporánea (CGAC) (2008), Santiago de Compostela (2008) and at the Kölnischer Kunstverein (2006). Group show participations at (selection): Revolutions - forms that turn, Sydney Biennale (2008), Multiplex: Directions in Art, 1970 to Present, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York (2007) and Skulptur Projekte Münster (2007). His works have also been shown at filmfestivals worldwide, such as Rotterdam International Film Festival (2009), Cinemateque Paris and Filmmuseum Munich.
On Ruins, Recording and Reckoning
By Scott Birdwise
“There is no universal history.” So concludes the bottom line of the final title card of Rithy Panh’s La France est notre patrie (France Is Our Mother Country, 2015), the Cambodian-French filmmaker’s recent assemblage film devoted to reckoning with the legacy of colonial violence in French Indochina. Panh is no stranger to such excavations of the colonial and post-colonial history of his country (Cambodia) and its surrounding region, as exemplified in what are perhaps his best-known films S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2003) and The Missing Picture (2013). In La France est notre patrie, specifically, however, the filmmaker devotes his wit, intelligence and compassion to not only uncovering repressed historical material, whether in the form of an image or a story, but to a thoroughgoing interrogation of the archival image and its fraught meanings and uses, its historical and contemporary resonances and values. In particular, Panh conducts this reckoning through both the juxtaposition of image with image as well as image with text, thus implicitly making a case for critically considering the image or images as a kind of text (a set of signs) and, indeed, the text (the historical convention or function of the inter-title, for example) as a kind of historical image. In this way, Panh’s film partakes in what can be considered an allegorical mode of historical discourse in the way it treats the archival image of colonization as a site of interpretive play and struggle.
Allegory, as the critic Walter Benjamin deploys the term, names a historical experience of fragmentation in which history appears in the form of fragments, of ruins, as opposed to a unified narrative or image.[i] In this catastrophic condition of historical transmission, the fragments of the world, such as images that once might have been thought to communicate themselves unproblematically, now, in the harsh light of retrospection and decline, present themselves as shards and traces, damaged in their meanings and thus more explicitly revealed as signs that require active interpretation and (re)contextualization. Injecting time and difference into objects relative to the broader social events and transformations that give them meaning, allegory as historical procedure denaturalizes cultural systems such as those found in colonial hierarchies like French Indochina. Allegorical design, and thus the reading and viewing strategy it calls forth, engages the polysemy of the sign. “Polysemy,” writes Roland Barthes in “Rhetoric of the Image,” “poses a question of meaning and this question always comes through as a dysfunction, even if this dysfunction is recuperated by society as a tragic (silent, God provides no possibility of choosing between signs) or a poetic (the panic "shudder of meaning" of the Ancient Greeks) game; in the cinema itself, traumatic images are bound up with an uncertainty (an anxiety) concerning the meaning of objects or attitudes.”[ii] In the film(s) under consideration here, the photographic or cinematographic indexical-archival image is rendered both problematic and productive in its communication, construction and constriction of meaning in a traumatic and transforming (post-)colonial context.
Panh’s allegorical strategy in La France est notre patrie is at least twofold: first, in appropriating and remobilizing images from the French colonial archive — what the filmmaker terms “beautiful and poisonous images” — in light of the present, he confronts the image with its own historical contingency and relativity. The images, arranged in the form of a kind of mock travelogue, communicate both between one another and with the contemporary moment, in the process excavating hidden meanings and violence that is nevertheless inscribed on the surface of the image. Second, the use of intertitles akin to and signifying of the period of silent cinema, itself indicative of another set of historical conventions linked to the management of meaning, adds another dimension of (re-)signification to the film. Deploying both discourse from the colonial period — such as the racist, biopolitical diagnoses and decrees of one Dr. Legendre — and biting, satirical commentary from the vantage point of the present (provided by Christophe Bataille), the intertitles reframe what might otherwise be perceived as the matter-of-fact-ness of the images and the colonial power structures (such as the control of the gaze) they both naturalize and exhibit. The intertitles thus paradoxically function in an expository fashion similar to the traditional silent cinema travelogue (as the domesticating commentary on images from an exotic locale) but finally, through their mutual play of difference and resonance with the images, blast the travelogue as mythical “universal history” apart from within.
Deploying the metaphor of the ruin to capture the polysemy of allegory, Walter Benjamin writes: “Allegories are, in the realm of thoughts, what ruins are in the realm of things.”[iii] With this in mind, the opening and concluding present day/colour shots of a ruined French colonial mansion, swallowed up and increasingly threaded into the jungle, function as the key allegorical image in La France est notre patrie. The ruined mansion is a kind of fossilized (yet teeming with jungle life) emblem of the tragedy of French colonial expansion — indicative of both the folly of the French imperial mission to “civilize” other cultures and peoples and the violence perpetrated on the land itself. The ruin further serves as an emblem of the allegorical procedure of the film in its entirety: it is an image or pile of images of a structure in pieces; it’s interrogation of the visual field at once testifying to the impossibility of recovering a never existent whole and encouraging divergent, multiplying pathways of signification through the damaged historical material of the archive. Thinking about the ruined mansion in light of the film’s conclusion that there is indeed no “universal history,” one might suggest that there may nevertheless be a “natural history” that informs the allegorical power of Panh’s film, a natural history perhaps of destruction, perhaps of resistance.
The accompanying film in this screening, Clemens von Wedemeyer’s The Horses of a Cavalry Captain (Die Pferde des Rittmeisters, 2015) also partakes of this allegorical approach to the traumas of history. Early in this ten minute short, itself part of a larger series of multimedia works devoted to exploring and investigating the notion of “point of view,” von Wedemeye’s voice-over informs us that the images we are encountering were shot by his grandfather, an officer in the German Wehrmacht during WWII, between 1938 and 1941. Objectified memory fragments from another time, the rolls of 16mm film were only recently discovered in the attic of the filmmaker’s family home. While the images shot by von Wedemeyer’s grandfather might have been thought at the time to merely reflect his passion for equine subjects even during a time of war, in the hands of his filmmaker grandson the images, in conjunction with the voice-over that reactivates said images by adding a transhistorical testimony or lamentation to their mute witness, ultimately reveal themselves as symptoms, documents of violence and destruction — within, but even more so just beyond, the cinematic frame.
The horses so emphatically captured by von Wedemeyer’s grandfather’s camera are allegorical symbols in the way they stand as both themselves in their materiality — and this in many senses: as biological animal material, as “equipment” deployed for the war effort, for example — and as polyvalent signs constantly throwing off meaning in many directions within and outside the frame. von Wedemeyer tells us that the desire to make a war film is inscribed into the images, the choices of shots and settings, and yet that the actual fighting of the war takes place in-between the shots, in the intervals of this equine romance. The allegorical operation of the film thus invites reading the images of the horses as signs or symbols of the fighting that remains absent in the image. As polyvalent signs, the horses stand in for dead humans by way of metonymic displacement and interspecies symbolization. Further, the horse thus becomes a symptom of the cameraman’s repression of seeing the war dead; in this way, the horses carry the dead and gesture to their absence — the dead, as it were, “ride” upon the horses. But as the film continues deeper into the war, arriving at Pilyava village in Ukraine in July 1941, increasing exhaustion sets in. Images of dead horses and struggling soldiers in blasted environments, fleeing refugees and bombed out churches come to dominate the mise en scène. If, as the voice-over intones at one point in the film, “Every image testifies that you’re still alive,” then this is nevertheless an increasingly exhausted subject — exhausted by the destructiveness of the Nazi war machine, the human and environmental toll, and the repressions necessary to carry on with the very documentary-propaganda recording of all of this expenditure.
The etymology of the term “record” indicates that it pertains to repeating, reciting, reporting, and making known. Recording apparently directly links back to the Latin “recordari” for remembering and being mindful of, which links the “re” of “restore” to the “cor” from “cordial,” which is to say, the heart. In this way, recording pertains to something written, something known and carried in or on the heart.[iv] The Horses of a Cavalry Captain mobilizes an allegorical operation to uncover the deeply traumatic historical dimensions at the heart of family objects seemingly buried in the past and out of view. The film transmits its historical experience by way of dialectically reading the surface and pastness of the image with contextual information and (virtually) present voice-over. This in turn implicates the filmmaker, and perhaps the viewer, in some way in the very power dynamics of the point of view exercised and further interrogated in the film. In this light, in dealing with his grandfather’s footage of the war that reveals so much in its very absences, von Wedemeyer’s The Horses of a Cavalry Captain records his own reckoning with both historical violence and the violence of transmitting national and familial history.
[i] See Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, John Osborne, trans. (London: New Left Books, 1977).
[ii] Roland Barthes, “The Rhetoric of the Image” in Image — Music — Text, Stephen Heath, trans. (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), 156.
[iii] Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, 178.