“Fans of the director will find that Everything Will Be OK resonates deeply.”
Glory is the beginning of persecution
Besides being a prolific documentarian on the violent history of his native country, Cambodian director Rithy Panh has always been one of cinema’s greatest essayists and philosophers. Since his biggest success, 2013’s The Missing Picture, he seems to be shifting more in that direction, having created the dense think pieces Exile (2016) and Irradiated (2020), which he is following up now with another Berlin competition entry, Everything Will Be OK. Returning to The Missing Picture‘s mixture of archival footage and dioramas filled with clay figurines, Panh’s subject matter has not changed that much since the days of his documentaries about the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979, atrocities that he witnessed firsthand in his early teenage years. Panh is still struggling with the question how such unspeakable horrors could have taken place, and how history keeps repeating itself in this regard. Where does the human penchant for violence and oppression come from?
Though the monstrous Khmer Rouge regime plays a big role in the archive footage, Panh casts his view wider to take a look at humanity and beyond. He already did so in his triple-screen Irradiated (here at times doubled to six), but he extends it here to the animal world. In Everything Will Be OK‘s world animals seize power. What would happen? Would they start to show the same patterns of behaviour as humans have throughout history? Initially, in a hopeful moment, the edifices of the human world are torn down, symbolized ironically by the Statue of Liberty (whose liberty does that represent, actually?). “Freedom is an impossible child,” the voiceover assures us, and indeed soon enough the animals, led by the wild boars, enslave their human subjects in a reversal of fortune. Learning from human history by watching what is left behind in audio-visual archive form, totalitarianism and the violence that comes with it take hold of the new animal-ruled world. The use of clay figurines that Panh repeats from The Missing Picture forms a clear link between this fictional world and his own realities in the ’70s, and from it arises a central question: are animals human, or are humans animals? Does the nature of power, but especially the effect it has on those who wield power, transcend our human intelligence or not? An interesting comparison would be the infamous dinosaur scene in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, where empathy is portrayed as inherent in all creatures. Malick doesn’t have the same experiences as Panh, so it is wholly understandable that the latter’s faith in empathy is not as high as Malick’s optimistic view of the world based on his faith, but to place two of cinema’s great thinkers side by side is tempting.
Early on the voiceover (by Rebecca Marder) almost quips that it will be speaking in metaphors, as if Panh knows that his language’s density will be a hurdle to a lot of viewers. Reviewing a film like Everything Will Be OK is perhaps a fool’s errand. It is a film to be revisited, to be contemplated, to have an inner dialogue with. The film is indeed full of metaphors and aphorisms, which may come off as pretentious to many, but have buried in them a deep truth. “Ideology is an ogre,” the voice muses. Your mileage may vary depending on whether you are receptive to this kind of essayistic style, but those who open themselves up will find Panh’s quest to understand human nature (or is it nature?) and his warnings about the political language that consumes us rewarding. Everything Will Be OK is food for thought, par for the course with the Cambodian master, as it tries to provide and perhaps provoke insights. “The world is in your hands,” the positive-sounding slogan goes. But as Panh impresses upon us: it is the poem of power. And we all know what power leads to. The film’s title is based on an empty slogan seen on the t-shirt of a murdered teenager during the Myanmar protests. A cynic might see Panh’s philosophical inquiries as a mockery of himself, but fans of the director will find that Everything Will Be OK resonates deeply.