Film and Anthropology - Note by Anne Guillou

How the making of a documentary helped develop better scientific research

Anne Guillou, anthropologist (CNRS, France)

The documentary’s story was co-written by Anne Yvonne Guillou and Jean Mathis (independent filmmaker based in Phnom Penh). It was mainly shot during the Festival of the Dead (Pchhum Ben) in October 2014 (40 hours of rushes). The post-production is currently in process (half was completed in May 2015). The final cut is expected by April 2016. The story is about the memory of the Khmer Rouge genocide embodied in rituals for the dead (all dead, including the victims of the Khmer Rouge). The film’s provisional title is What is left. Untold stories about memory in Cambodia.

The anthropological research benefited from the making of the documentary in various ways.

First, the documentary is the best way to make scientific outcomes accessible to audiences of various backgrounds who do not read articles written in scholarly journals.

Second, the anthropologist and the filmmaker learned a great deal from the conversation they entered into during the filming. Indeed, this dialogue was a long-term endeavour. Two languages – words and images – had to be mixed in order to invent a new cinematographic idiom. We had to entirely rewrite the story two or three times before obtaining one that satisfied us both. The shooting of ritual events turned out to be the most appropriate way to bring this common language to life. Then we focused on a major Cambodian ritual – the Festival of the Dead – which gave a sense of time, continuity and unity to our film. This effort in creating a unity of time was later translated to the choice of the place.

Third, the act of film helped the anthropologist with the interpretation of her data. During the shooting, we decided to put a monastery at the center of the story. This monastery (where the anthropologist had done extensive previous research) was chosen because its characteristics bear relation to past events, painful memories and traces of the genocide. It shelters a sacred ancient tower with many legends related to it; it was a political prison where thousands of people died under the Pol Pot regime; today it is a well-known monastery that attracts hundreds of Buddhist believers during major annual rituals. We then shot events alternatively in the monastery and at the homes of neighbours.

The filming helped the anthropologist understand and better analyze some aspects of her data in several ways. For example, it became crystal clear that all the rituals for the dead outside the monastery were symbolically linked to the Buddhist monastery. In one case, we went to two families’ houses to film the offerings they made at an old mass grave (the spirit “living” there is the families’s protector). After making the offerings, they went to the monastery, inviting the “spirits of the dead of the mass grave” to follow them there. This gave us a nice opportunity to shoot the whole action, as they travelled from the mass grave to the monastery.This link between rituals for the dead and Buddhism is a growing phenomenon in contemporary Cambodia, which is experiencing many changes in the field of Buddhist religion, particularly the ‘buddhicization’ of non Buddhist rituals.

 Another example is the detailed visualisation of all the offerings to the dead through the lens of the camera. This helped the anthropologist understand how many “categories” of dead people existed and that those practical categories of the dead were created and thought about mainly through the making of specific offerings to each of them. People’s categorization processes in general are done through offering and donation.