Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Devouring Buddha (2002)

Genre: Experimental Documentary Short (Canada)

Starring: Victims and perpetrators of the Cambodian massacre

Directed By: Korbett Matthews

Overview: The Tuol Sleng Prison, a once Cambodian high school turned execution and torture camp for the Khmer Rouge, has since been transformed into a museum honouring the victims of the massacres. This documentary explores the Buddhist belief that the ghosts of those victims still linger there.

As I did with Antonio Gaudi, rather than discuss all 'integral elements' of Devouring Buddha in my usual way, I thought it best to let the process of this review flow in a more airy fashion. You see, this documentary is experimental before educational, intensity and inspiration before information, it's an ethereal, ghostly voyage that is virtually scriptless, a documentary that prefers to let its images speak a thousand words.

It begins with a narrator telling the history of this Cambodian museum, letting us learn of the atrocities committed by Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge, then, after those few scant sentences, the film continues in a slow and haunting montage rivalling the best cinematographers out there.

Luckily, I was granted the honour of having the subtext explained by the director himself. He explained that the Khmer school of Buddhism attributes every day with a different colour, which inspired his to shoot every day's footage with a different filter. From a ruined and vine-laden temple floor in vibrant greens, to water splitting behind a boat in a cold blue, the still and perfectly shot images are given an added element of the high-art that also, as Korbett puts it, "dictate memory of dark historical abyss in an almost post-traumatic fashion." Images of modern people are juxtaposed with the grainy black and white mug-shots of the victims of the past, serene sounds are overlaid across the busy streets of Cambodia today, helping to symbolize the forced rural living that Pol Pot ordered as he made cities illegal.

A slow pan shows a vast empty stadium, a girl walks across a threshold only to fade away before she reaches the other side, these are the types of images that convey the deepest emotions. Since Buddhists believe that cremation is necessary to continue on the cycle of life, given that these victims were either hung or stabbed then tossed into the pits of the killing fields to rot, they were also left to continue a restless existence in their haunted city.

This is what Korbett decided to focus his study on, following the haunts of those slain, exploring the ghostly events with a venerable score, and leaving the depth of his scenes to speak the emotion that no guide or instructor could ever hope to convey.

The most disappointing thing about this documentary would have to be its availability. This relatively new Canadian short film that made its way through the festival circuit is very difficult to find, and I suppose if I've done a good enough job in inspiring you to see this then pehaps you could ask the filmmaker directly on how to get your hands on this yourself. The following link includes a short synopsis and contact info for Korbett:


Overall Rating: 88% (Eats Away At You)

Aftertaste: When I asked Korbett "Why the title?" he explained that the Khmer word for 'to rule', as in govern, also means to devour, so not only do we begin with a title that invokes emotion, but are left with the double meaning that adds irony to the horrible history of Cambodian between 1975 and 1979. I loved it.