Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Death March remembered

At the Cannes Film Festival this year, a film on the infamous 1942 Bataan Death March was featured among "un certain regard" selections. As you can see from the clip above, the Filipino director, Adolfo Borinaga Alix Jr., took a very stylistic, emotive approach to the war crime.

He was not concerned with historic details such as the style of the helmets or cleanliness of the uniforms. He wanted the viewer to feel the brutality, to sense the hopelessness, to become abandoned of all senses. The film is considered "experimental."

Unfortunately, Alix overplayed his objective and the film was not well-received. The Variety reviewer wrote that the film, Death March, was a
gruelingly abstract and attenuated war meditation. Deploying a curious mix of artificial scenery, extended slow-motion and black-and-white cinematography, the director seeks to suspend viewers in the surreal, barbaric experience of the Bataan Death March, which claimed the lives of thousands of POWs being forcibly transferred by the Japanese army in 1942. That it’s monotonous and excruciating by design isn’t enough to recommend this drawn-out tribute/art piece, whose walkout-heavy Cannes premiere doesn’t bode well for its prospects beyond festivals.

In contrast, filmaker Jan Thompson's Tragedy of Bataan, tries to maintain historical accuracy and stays close to traditional documentary filmmaking.
The Tragedy of Bataan features first-person accounts by over 20 survivors of the conflict, archival photos, and never-before-seen Japanese propaganda film footage. It also includes excerpts from the unpublished diary of Captain Albert Brown of Pinckneyville, Illinois, who describes the five months leading up to the surrender of U.S. troops and Filipino defenders to the Imperial Japanese Army. Brown, who is featured in the television program, was 101 years old at the time of the interview and passed away at age 105 in August 2011. He had been the oldest survivor of the Bataan Death March.
These are two different films, albeit with an important history to recall. Neither, however, transcends to art. They are not graphically arresting, unsettling records of the horror. Whereas the story they tell is memorable, the storytelling is not. They are not Night and Fog, The Sorrow and The Pity, Schindler's List or Sophie's Choice, the title of which has become an literary expression for an unbearable choice.

But these films about the March are important steps toward encouraging the production of a seminal film on the POW experience. And most important, they are proof that the history will not expire with the death of the last survivor. The story is moving into the realm of the artist. The arts embed history into culture and are thus the best way to ensure permanence. In the end, Japan's deniers have more to fear from art than they do from history.

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