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SINdie: Brother No. 2

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Having seen Jason’s ‘3 Feet Apart’ in the Singapore Shorts Collection Volume 1, makes ‘Brother No. 2’ a leap of a hundred feet from it. ‘3 Feet Apart’ is mind-tickling animation about a character who has a mobile phone growing out of his ear. “Brother No. 2′ is no-nonsense digging of history’s skeletons.

It is straight-forward, it makes its journey clear and there are no attempts to heighten the drama except maybe for the cartoon drawings which seemed a little incongruent with the rest of the film.

‘Brother No. 2’ won the Dong Bak prize (the top prize) at the 2008 Busan Asian Short Film Festival. The festival is daring in the way it awards prizes and I was a little baffled after watching ‘Brother No. 2’ because it was a very safe TV-style documentary that broke few grounds, except for one – getting a big historical figure to be in the video.

The documentary, like many Khmer Rouge documentaries gives a voice to the victims and later generations of victims of the genocide that wiped off about 2 million Cambodians between 1975 and 1979. Soy Sen, a man probably in his 30s is the anchor of the voices and the film. He has lived through a prison camp and returns to his camp to confront one of the prison chiefs whom he believed has been responsible for his father’s execution.

If all the merciless torture and persecution mentioned in the history books were true, I began to wonder how the people persecuted could continue walking around, getting on with their daily lives without back lash from the descendants of the executed. Amidst the more benign post-Rouge surroundings, where Buddhism spreads a veneer of calmness over life, it seemed odd to see these persecutors living side by side with the people they once bludgeoned.

Perhaps this is the workings of a documentary, especially one that involves many talking heads like ‘Brother No.2’. Under the untampered, straight-on, natural background shooting style, even the ‘villians’ of the documentary are humanised. So while, we know the persecutors have done ‘bad’, they are given the same objective, matter-of-fact presentation. Sometimes, if I don’t pay attention, I may lose grip on who’s the victim and who’s the villian. Perhaps, that’s the hidden ‘X-factor’ in this documentary.

Just to illustrate another example. For reasons unknown (I did not stay for the Q & A), they managed to get a key figure in the Khmer Rouge genocide to appear in the video. His name is Nuen Chea – apparently the second hand man to Pol Pot and the man who released the orders of exection and torture. While the narration psyches us up to face a demon, when Nuen makes his appearance, we see a silver-haired man just enjoying the serenity of retirement in an isolated house. There is a scene of him and his wife enjoying a 3-course lunch delivered to them clearly etched in my mind. He does not speak much. And before the scene was his ‘talking head’ denying his acts of cruelty. What’s unspoken, unmentioned is always more unsettling and that lunch scene had that kind of an effect on me.

While, the documentary scored on various achievements like getting heavy-weights to appear and even following our protagonist Soy Sen faithfully, could have loosened its rules of delivery a little. The entire film is polished in a rather predictable way. It could very easily fit into a Channel NewsAsia programme. Not sure if the producers meant it for that avenue. At its worst, it is a little patronising. While it dug deeply into the story, it could have also dug just as deep into visual imagery that I am sure is abundant in post-war Cambodia. Instead, it used a series of cartoon drawings to illustrate several points, resembling an educational program for students.

The film did come end with something more than a emotional journey. Soy Sen decided that one of the ways to put the matter to rest was to organise a village screening of videos that educated the younger brothers and sisters on the atrocities of the persecutors. Not sure if it will unleash another can of worms, but at least someone’s had his say for now.

Extracted from Jeremy Sing’s website, http://sindieonly.blogspot.com/. For more Independent Singaporean Feature film and short reviews, do visit his website.

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