Dignity, Always Dignity
Julien Allen on Beyond Hatred and Secret Sunshine
“A work of art is . . . a corner of nature, seen through a temperament.” —Émile Zola
A film’s emotional impact depends on the filmmaker’s control over narrative information. How soon, and by what means, are we the audience to be told, or allowed to witness and comprehend precisely what is going on? The literary principles of storytelling have been amplified by the possibilities of cinema: decisions regarding introductory text, narration, and expository dialogue impose themselves from the start; any twist or unexpected narrative development renders the machinery of discovery which precedes it even more delicate; a resonant ending frequently requires a revelation—or at least a turn in the final act—which might explain or color what has gone before. Occasionally and thrillingly—though it may be harder than ever to pull off in the age of the spoiler—an audience will discover that it has not been watching the type of film it thought it had been watching.
With documentary filmmaking, that vital, enriching, and exhilaratingly cinematic process of discovery is extended backwards to the filmmakers themselves. When we watch a documentary, we are witnessing those who are supposedly in control of the information, going through their own learning processes. Whether they are historical journalists, such as Ken Burns, who would deliberately carry out a large portion of his research into his subjects during and after the shoot itself; or social activists, like Barbara Kopple, whose greatest projects were conceived with a political purpose but who shot events cold, as they unfolded; or poetic realists like Werner Herzog, who admits he rolls the camera while praying for something ecstatic to take hold, documentarians all have one thing in common: they cannot credibly predict at the outset, and to some extent may not want to know, what they will end up with. Because they are engaged in the business of filming reality, something over which no one has any jurisdiction, the unknown unknowns come into play. Through this tantalizing state of uncertainty, the relationship between audience and filmmakers develops the potential to be much closer.
FEMIS-graduate Olivier Meyrou’s 2005 documentary Beyond Hatred (Au-delà de la haine) is a journey of discovery of the most enlightening kind: one in which the filmmakers' own discoveries are preserved by the editing process and subtly refashioned for the audience. Like an expert hang-glider, Beyond Hatred keeps its feet in contact with the ground until it reaches the edge of a cliff, then without the spectator spotting the moment of transition, it soars. It doesn't innovate from the off. If anything, it settles us into our discomfort, presenting its foreboding material in a cinematically familiar way, with stark point-of-view driving shots at dusk on a snowy mountain road, over a plaintive unsettling piano score. There’s a snatch of handheld footage of children playing in the snow while a middle-aged man watches them. An enigmatic voice-over introduces us to the fact that something terrible has happened. We’re gripped, but even at this early point we think we know what we're gripped by. Little by little, the details emerge. It's a national news story: the murder of a young homosexual, François Chenu, by three young skinheads in a park in Reims, northern France. The killers, paid-up soldiers of France’s far right Front National, had lain in wait in the bushes, planning to “do themselves an Arab.” In the end, they did themselves a gay man. They beat him; when he resisted, they beat and kicked him some more and threw him into the river; they fished him out again, whereupon he bravely taunted them for their cowardice, so they stamped on his face and head until he was unconscious. He would have survived had they left him on the path, but instead—fearful of discovery—they threw his senseless, broken body back into the river and he drowned.
Meyrou and his crew caught up with the victim’s parents and sister at the time of the criminal hearings, two years after the tragedy. Initially preoccupied with a wider national story—about homophobia in France and the rise of the far right—Meyrou discovered something unexpected, which felt out of place to him in the white heat of the impending murder trial. As a response to the calculated violence and hatred of the crime, Chenu’s parents had resorted to serenity and reflection. So, while all the sentiments one would expect—anger, sorrow, obsession, fear—abound in Beyond Hatred, the film’s central pillar becomes the determination of Chenu’s parents to turn the camera on themselves and examine their own prejudices: to overcome their previously unrelenting grief by undertaking and preaching forgiveness and betterment, while in the process reaching out to their son’s killers. By discarding their own poisonous sentiments of hatred and vengeance, they not only hope to banish the causes of their despair but also refuse to participate in the world as it is, beginning instead their own process of seeking out a better one. Their pledge is onerous: visibly wrenching at times to Mme Chenu, who expresses her doubts, but ultimately resolves to stand firm in the couple’s shared conviction.
Faced with this reversal of expectation and overcome by the Chenu parents’ resolve, Meyrou responds with an intensified respect for his protagonists and an almost complete change of tack. It’s as if he is prepared to relinquish control of his film to the Chenus—not editorially, for they have to rely on his expertise to compose the film with honesty—but narratively and tonally. The film has, in the light of revelations during the shoot, become about something else. Meyrou’s purpose begins to align with that of the Chenus: the search for something worthwhile from the embers of all the hatred. One manifestation of his respect for the protagonists is a physical withdrawal of the filmmaker’s apparatus: he begins to hold the camera at a remove, eavesdropping from a distance on conversations in the family home and in the courthouse, rather than persisting with the stark close-ups and direct interview technique employed at the beginning. In so doing—invoking a form of direct cinema—these conversations themselves take on a veracity which the early, cinema vérité sequences of the film, where the camera was an active ingredient in the action, cannot match. Compare, for example, the somewhat awkward “entrance” by the prosecutor, all too aware of the camera when we first meet her in her chambers and incapable of suppressing her desire to perform, to her genuinely oblivious attitude at the end, when discussing the verdict in whispers in the halls of the Palais de Justice. At the outset, as a means of exposition, Meyrou had persuaded the Chenu family to relive the moment when Francois’s sister told her parents their son was dead, filmed—again, somewhat uneasily—as a straight three shot; but during the latter stages of the film, whenever a character addresses the camera directly, Meyrou eschews the candid shot, employing instead out-of-focus, oblique angles, obstacles, and reflective glass. To mitigate the reduction in factual focus occasioned by this withdrawal, Meyrou also films radio journalists at court, essentially allowing them to do the interview work for him.
This deliberate distancing by Meyrou—respecting the dignity of individuals in a state of heightened emotional turmoil—recalls a similar ethos employed in a similarly themed narrative film: Lee Chang-dong’s 2007 melodrama, Secret Sunshine, wherein the main character played by Jeon Do-yeon is, like Mme Chenu, trying to overcome her grief at the murder by drowning of her only son. An early, climactic sequence of Secret Sunshine actually operates as a poignant anticlimax: Jeon is shepherded by police toward the drowned body of her little boy on a miserable stretch of marshland outside Milyang. The camera observes them in the distance. The boy’s body is hidden from our view in the undergrowth (in Beyond Hatred no images of François Chenu, dead or alive, are seen at any time), while the camera is too far away to see Jeon’s face, only her distant, halting form. The effect of this depiction of a mother’s worst fear realized is no less powerful for being, formally speaking, quite demonstratively restrained. Later when Jeon finally vents her anguish, she is in church: for what seems like an age we see only a shot of the congregation from the rear as we hear someone wailing through tears, before a slow pan finally allows us to see her agony. By this time we have become cognizant of the fact that this is a cathartic, public experience for her, which we have permission to witness.
Despite such a purposeful formal approach, Lee shares with Meyrou a desire to tell a story without seeming to touch it. In choosing distance, Lee rejects the manipulation all too common in South Korea’s mainstream cinema culture, which prefers heavy melodrama, and replaces it with another, more generous and restrained methodology. He is not trying to make a documentary-style film, but he is still using the positioning of the camera to conjure a sense of realism, while by the same token openly forcing our respect for his characters. Both Lee and Meyrou appreciate that tragedy can be both raw and dignified, depending on how it is viewed. By choosing a plan américain over a shot-reverse shot sequence for the horrific upbraiding of Jeon’s character by her mother-in-law (whose complaint is that Jeon’s character was not grieving more overtly), Lee doesn’t overburden our experience of the scene with emphasis on actors’ facial expressions, preferring to construct a sense of what a bystander would see and feel about such an encounter. Barbara Kopple talked of “solidarity” between filmmaker and protagonist in the context of documentary film and the same applies here: there is a desire to avoid exploitation of the characters, which transmits itself into a desire to avoid exploitation of the audience.
Frequently in narrative cinema, fictionalized grief can be packaged as cathartic escapism (the positive expression “weepie” had to come from somewhere), while grief in documentary film usually has a discomfiting quality, akin to someone bursting into tears at the dinner table. To see someone cry in a documentary is to see someone lose control, while the opposite is true of narrative film, where the actor has proven sufficiently skilled to persuasively marshal tears on cue. The comfort blanket of fiction protects an audience that takes an empathy fix from an actor’s tears, while on the flipside, there is a regrettable tendency for some documentary films on the subject of death (The Suicide Tourist, How to Die in Oregon) to treat real crying as a money shot. Both Beyond Hatred and Secret Sunshine show filmmakers keen to escape the same pitfalls of exploitation and sentimentality: Meyrou by eliding almost all scenes of crying; Lee by his compositional naturalism and conspicuous rejection of the endemic voyeurism of classical melodrama. And in both films we see grief—and its attendant search for consolation—metastasizing into something else: in the Chenus’ case, tolerance and renewal; in Jeon’s case, religious fervor, then sexual desire. There may be an undeniable intimacy to the second half of Secret Sunshine, but as with Meyrou and the Chenus, the director and thus the audience have earned the right to accompany her. When we see Jeon grieving alone, even in her confusion she conveys a powerful dignity, as if she is sharing her feelings with us, rather than making us all into intruders.
An astute conceit in Beyond Hatred is the mirroring of the legal process and the filmmaking process, as it depicts two legal teams tasked with telling a story to an audience (the jury): like the director, they must stress-test the effect on their audience of each method of presentation of the facts, in order to help provoke the emergence of some sort of truth. In law, like in cinema, the idea of “truth” depends to a great extent on the method of its presentation, and by their use of a withdrawn, objective camera both films entrust their audience with the ability to find theirs. One is reminded of Errol Morris’s description of documentary film as the vain search for an always elusive truth: the guilt of the Chenu murderers is not an issue, but the causes of their hate and, in particular the lessons to be learned, constitute the elusive truths which the characters and filmmakers of Beyond Hatred are pursuing.
Jean Rouch famously concluded that artifice and reality are happy bedfellows in nonfiction cinema, and it follows that an audience can respond to the artifice just as strongly as it does to the reality. By the same token, the overt formality of the realism in Lee Chang-dong’s depiction of grief in Secret Sunshine is a collaboration between filmmaker and viewer—it isn’t seeking to dupe or maneuver the audience, but to persuade us that what the film is doing is ethically right. If we look at things from this perspective and recognize the thematic and stylistic similarities between these two films, both of which strive above all else to tell stories with genuine human resonance, the importance of the distinction between narrative and documentary films begins to ebb away. Zola’s quote about art applies in all its forms, whether fictional or not, as both fiction and nonfiction are filtered versions of reality. The use of realism (in fiction) is as common and palpably artificial a construct as the decision to interview protagonists in documentary films. Many fictional directors (Rossellini, Pialat, Cassavetes) have tried to smudge that dividing line, so powerful is the pull of a film’s potential submission to reality. But documentary cinema is the only form that offers the opportunity for reality to rewrite the script.
Beyond Hatred ends with two obliquely connected, lacerating sequences: the Chenus stoically reading to the camera an open letter, an olive branch addressed to their son’s murderers; and the youngest murderer’s attorney visiting his client in prison. The part of the journey Meyrou and his audience have shared with the Chenus ends on a logical note: one of genuine concern for their son’s killer. At the beginning of Beyond Hatred, his sister had first described a police photo of François’s body as “ressembler à rien,” which translates correctly as “it didn’t look like him,” but literally means “it looked like nothing.” Meyrou’s film might have also looked like nothing, but for the fact that he discovered—and surrendered to—the real story and let it take us where it led him. Secret Sunshine also ends on a tone of quiet, dignified defiance: reflecting the possibilities of healing but without offering up clues as to what the future might hold. We’ve borne witness to these people’s struggles and we’ve interrogated our own responses to their suffering. Now it’s time we left them to continue on their paths alone.