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Films of healing and kindness

17 June 2016

Stephen Brown sees current releases

Bedside vigil: Jen (Jenjira Pongpas Widner), and the soldier Itt (Banlop Lomnoi) in Cemetery of Splendour

Bedside vigil: Jen (Jenjira Pongpas Widner), and the soldier Itt (Banlop Lomnoi) in Cemetery of Splendour

THE director Apichatpong Weerasethakul is best known in the UK for his film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Arts, 12 November 2010). Cemetery of Splendour (Cert. PG) continues his exploration of how the past im­­pinges on present reality.

He is a committed Buddhist, and his ultimate concern is the way spiritual sickness prevents the healing of individuals’ physical symptom — and, one might add, of Thailand itself. In this particular film, we see a ward full of soldiers spending most of their days asleep. The presenting issue is narcolepsy, one that may be seen as meta­phorical. Translated into biblical terminology, it stands as the equivalent of Psalm 91’s sickness that destroys us in the noon day of life; what St John Cassian described as accidie.

We meet Jen (Jenjira Pongpas Widner), who is visiting the field hospital. Tending to Itt (Banlop Lomnoi), one of the patients, she comes across his journal, where­upon she enters a world full of mystery. As in his previous films, Apichatpong moves unself­­consciously from describing the so-called real world into that of the spirits. It is revealed to Jen that the hospital is the very spot where a palace stood. The soldiers’ medical condition will never be cured because members of the site’s ancient royalty are draining off their energy.

Nevertheless, Itt has periods of wakefulness, even going out to dinner and the cinema with Jen. The director is employing activities such as these to demonstrate the imper­manence of our existence. Nothing lasts for ever. As is soon the case, the risk of slumber is ever-present. The message is clear. Sleepers, wake! It is a clarion call for humanity to rouse itself, shake off those long-practised forms of behaviour that impede our ascent, and call on the assistance of former lives. Let them be our in­­spiration.

It may all sound a rather fanciful scenario to those unacquainted with a Buddhist outlook, until one recalls the Church’s own credal statements with regard to the communion of saints. Even our petitioning of them bears a resemblance to the way in which Apichatpong lays out his own spirituality.

Over and above trying to find religious similarities, there is a meet­ing-point in how both the personal and collective states of unconscious affect the way we are now. In our waking moments, however fitful they are, the remem­brance of times past or hitherto lost takes us along yet unknown paths of existence. It requires a self-emptying of the dross and the grime that the world puts us through — again, something that Christian viewers will find ways of relating to.

The quest for transcendence may in Cemetery of Splendour never be more than a fleeting hope, but it is a journey that Apichatpong considers worth our while taking. Not for the first time, this director’s vision has touches of William Blake about it. We are encouraged to perceive
what raises us up besides safe­guarding against what brings us down. Too innocent, we will lose it or miss it altogether. Experience, not just our own but those of spirits past and present, can inform our travels.


THE coach carrying African ref­u­gees to safety in a new documen­tary, Fire at Sea (Cert. 12A), is named Misericordie (Compassion). Lampedusa, an Italian island nearer to Tunisia than Sicily, isn’t lacking in this, but it is expressed in a myriad ways.

A woman goes about preparing Sunday dinner as the radio tells of 250 more boat people drowning near by. “Poor souls,” she mutters as she continues to chop tomatoes. The director, Gianfranco Rosi, isn’t part­icularly making a point. Life goes on — it has to — for Lampedusans.

The same goes for the rest of us as we daily imbibe fresh disasters with our toast and marmalade. The difference is that the islanders have been on the front line of this pro­cession of human misery for many years. What the film does is stir up wonder that compassion fatigue hasn’t set in. The audience is shown not just how the rescued Africans cope with disaster, but also their hosts.

Christian faith is surely one source of strength. Nigerian migrants in yet another temporary home hold a prayer meeting in which they re­­count their escape from oppres­sion. Their travels through the Sahara Desert are per­ceived in terms of the Exodus, enduring great hardship there only to find Libya just as hostile an environment, thanks to the pre­sence of so-called Islamic State. “Life is risky,” chants the prayer leader, but thanks God that it is. That they are brave and grateful for deliverance won’t diminish audiences’ compas­sion for the ordeals that they have undergone.

Native islanders who, at a cursory glance, may seem indifferent to their suffering have developed practical ways of showing kindness to stran­gers. The sole doctor on the island ultrascans a pregnant survivor with the same care as he checks a local boy’s lazy eye. Coastguards and fishermen go about their daily business, to which in recent times has been added the task of saving endangered refugees. All in a day’s work, they seem to be implying. A nun at the refugee centre quietly sees to residents’ basic needs. The grandmother cooking a meal is also someone who prays.

Rosi, whose pedigree includes documentaries chronicling the lives of drop-outs and criminals, has pro­duced a film about ordinary people behaving extraordinarily well under testing circumstances. And he does it in a way quite different from television reports, however admir­able, of the same situation. He not only has an artist’s eye for detail, but much patience also.

This will irritate some people. I think it was the writer Charles Lamb who said that one can tell a story starting from a long way off, or you can get straight to the point. Rosi favours the first method. Anyone going to the cinema to watch a film about the hazards of these particular sea voyages will first have to witness a long sequence in which a couple of lads make catapults.

Through it, we are first learning about life on Lampedusa, in effect the Promised Land for these refu­gees. The word compassion means “to suffer with”, and perhaps Fire at Sea is helping us to suffer with these plucky islanders as well as those washed up on their shores.

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