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- Reviewed from the 2022 Berlinale.
We are all guilty. In this dystopian dreamlike meditation on the evils of humanity, Rithy Panh and his co-writers Christophe Bataille and Agnès Sénémaud want us to understand and acknowledge this truism. Animals, they show us, are cruelly slaughtered to meet human appetites and the earth is being catastrophically despoiled to satisfy human greed.
You knew this already, but if you’re looking for a litany of all the harm we’ve done, one softened by close-ups of cute ceramic figurines of a humble, terrified humanity enslaved, as in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, by animal captors, then this is the film for you. You may need a stronger stomach, though, to watch the archive footage of real animal and human slaughter, often split screened with a close-up of a figurine and tripled in a chequerboard pattern into six for who knows what aesthetic effect.
Everything Will Be OK is not a sermon of the slow-build hellfire variety but more a grim pile up of disparate worldwide wrongs. It comes from a director whose career was born out of the documentation of the genocidal crimes of the Khmer Rouge in his native Cambodia that led to the elimination of his own family.
The consequences of these crimes are the focus of his incisive documentaries Site 2 (1989), Rice People (1994), The Land of the Wandering Souls, S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2000) and Duch, Master of the Forges of Hell (2012). But from his similarly themed The Missing Picture (2013) onwards, Panh moved away from traditional documentary techniques to the use, alongside archive footage, of ceramic figures (made by sculptor Mang Sarith) in illustrative unmoving diorama scenes. With Irradiated (2020) he increased the scope of his jeremiads to include other atrocities such as the Holocaust, the atomic bombs and the Vietnam war. Here, he widens his embrace to causes of misery and terror affecting all sensate beings. Quite a stretch, that.
The film’s ironic title is taken from the T-Shirt of a teenager who was killed during the 2021 pro-democracy demos in Myanmar. It begins with a black Kubrickian monolith rising out of the ground, whose awesomeness is mocked by the relatively large grains of sand that surround it. Soon we’re in a dystopian playground setting with the Statue of Liberty, looking like an ancient survival of a dead religion, about to be toppled by the animal revolutionaries – monkeys, lions and buffalos among them – and replaced by an image of their leader, a warthog with golden arms (referred to by Panh in an interview as a kind of Pol Pig, after Khmer leader Pol Pot).
In merging Orwell’s quadruped revolution with dystopian SF ideas about cross-species mutation, Everything Will Be OK sadly labours its allegory, hamstrung by the obviousness of its messaging. The mutations are very crudely done – no doubt in deliberate jest – with the figurines of humans growing rhino horns and deer antlers and having huge SIM-Cards imbedded in their backs.
One problem with the static dioramas being so painstakingly constructed is that they oblige the director to get maximum value from them. Each one is lingered over far longer than necessary to make its points. These sequences are like an enforced museum tour. You must look at this and at it from this angle and then this close-up even though the changes of shot do not seem to add much more than increased wonder at the skill of the craftspeople.
Lingering on unmoving figures in this way for me erodes the initial fascination created by the contrast between the toy-like nature of the figurines and the horrors they depict. Another problem is that by substituting animal noises – squealing pigs, howler monkeys and other high-pitched sounds – for the speeches of fascist and communist demagogues, Panh undermines the very sympathy for the animals he’s pleading for. Perhaps that self-contradiction is there to remind us that some animals are more equal than others.
As for the voice-over essay, read by Rebecca Marder, it often comes across as the kind of vapid scattergun slogan-creation that banalises debate on social media. Altogether too many targets are aimed at and Panh’s visual quotations are often too familiar, whether it’s the usual clips of the workers in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis or the slaughter footage that gets used time and again in documentaries about industrial cruelty to livestock. Too many images one had hoped never to have to see again turn up here, but in a manner that rather dissipates than concentrates their force.