Documentary Film Reviews – Vol 88, No 3

Ainu: Paths to Memory. A film directed by Marcos Centeno Martín. Reviewed by Jeffry Gayman

Red Wedding: Women Under the Khmer Rouge. A film by Lida Chan and Guillaume Suon. Reviewed by Sophal Ear

AINU: Paths to Memory. A film directed by Marcos Centeno Martín; screenplay by Marcos Centeno Martín, Almudena García Navarro; editing by Almudena Garcia Navarro; voice over, Mayumi Matsushita; DVD edition, Sento Paredes; soundtrack, Shōji Fukumoto and Barnakústica. [Japan]: Produced by Marcos Centeno Martín and Almudena García Navarro; Released within Año Dual España-Japon, 2014. 1 online resource (82 min.) In Spanish, Japanese, English and French, with English, Spanish and Japanese subtitles. Url: Online viewing and DVD contact:

An 82-minute montage of interviews with museum specialists, scholars, and a limited number of Ainu culture bearers, the documentary Ainu: Paths to Memory represents the culmination of the efforts of Spanish filmmaker/scholar Marcos Centeno, capping nearly a decade of study of Japan’s minorities, to “try to find what were the possible ways to retrieve Ainu identity” (documentary Homepage). This film was created in conjunction with the four hundredth anniversary of Japanese and Spanish contact, under the auspices of the 400 Years of Relations fund. As “the first event of the Indigenous Ainu made in Spain,” it represents an important and much-needed first step to introduce the presence of the Indigenous Ainu people of Japan to contemporary non-English-speaking world audiences.

The film accurately portrays the Ainu as an Indigenous people of northern Japan, Sakhalin, the Kurile Islands, and the Kamchatka Peninsula, whose current population is estimated at between 30,000 and 300,000, and who were subjected to severe marginalization due to assimilation policies under Japanese expansionism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Originally, Ainu were a hunter-gatherer people who also engaged in extensive trade with Japan to the south and Russia and China to the north. Under this expansionism, Ainu society and culture were decimated by stringent assimilation measures leading to severe poverty, which when combined with heavy social discrimination led to negative ascription and passing as mainstream ethnic Wajin Japanese. It is only in limited tourist regions and isolated cases of well-to-do or well-learned families that we find exceptions. Presently only a few Elders in their eighties and over can be regarded as speakers of the Ainu language.

Together with the United Nations-supported right to self-determination, the potential revitalization of the Ainu language and culture as everyday lived praxis remains tenuous and direly in need of a boost. Scholars and other depictors of the Ainu such as Mr. Centeno thus need to be mindful of their work’s potential influence in creating “external pressure” on the Japanese government to support indigenous Ainu rights. One of the most needed of these is a comprehensive policy to shift the nexus of knowledge about the Ainu, and decisions about its use, away from non-Ainu scholars and into the hands of Ainu cultural practitioners and scholars themselves (Cf. Linda Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies, Zed Books, 1999).

In covering the majority of knowledge sources available as prospective building blocks of contemporary Ainu identity and the issues surrounding them, this work has touched upon all of the elements that it should have in its effort to “help the Ainu people in their task to regain their dignity and culture, and make it available as an aspect when approaching Japanese history.” Structured as a travel journey throughout the island of Hokkaido and beyond to Europe, centred around key interviews in each locale, the first half of the documentary seeks to dislodge the myth of Japanese ethnic homogeneity, and features the above themes of discrimination, assimilatory policies, disempowerment, loss of the Ainu language, history of research of the Ainu, and social and institutional hurdles to Ainu self-empowerment. The second half concentrates on issues of identity, generational attitudes toward the Ainu movement, the current state of cultural transmission, and issues of cultural authenticity.

On the other hand, contrary to recent films like Tokyo Ainu and Kamui to Ikiru, whose entire focus is on contemporary Ainu, Ainu: Paths to Memory, despite numerous shots from present-day Hokkaido, remains mainly a “tour of history,” relying on “the collaboration of several European museums that store large amounts of Ainu antiques and photographs; and the help of Japanese experts and researchers” for the bulk of its footage. This movie remains for the most part, as the title suggests, a review of pathways to culture featuring non-Ainu academics and experts. Out of a sum of approximately thirteen interviewees, only three Ainu are featured for a total of approximately fifteen minutes out of a 82-minute film. Thus, despite its good intentions, the film runs counter to recent trends in the academic disciplines of indigenous studies and anthropology toward prioritizing the indigenous voice, and thereby inadvertently poses the quite real danger of undermining Ainu self-determination (Smith, Decolonizing).

Meanwhile, value of cultural hybridity granted, the director’s choice to almost exclusively omit narrative and make the film content to “speak for itself” creates confusion as to the distinction between Ainu and Wajin interviewees, Ainu versus other locations, the Ainu and Japanese languages, and Ainu music versus music from other genres. For example, Wajin scholars are never identified as such, while Buddhist music such as the Heart Sutra is played in several key scenes featuring non-Buddhist Ainu.

Indigenous Ainu activism at the UN is only mentioned for the first time in the movie at minute 48, and at that in the context of the Ainu being used by other indigenous peoples. This reviewer got the impression that Mr. Centeno had not versed himself adequately enough in the ethics of working with indigenous populations (Cf. Alaska Federation of Natives Guidelines for Researchers), and that in this sense the film may have been shot a bit hastily ahead of its time, perhaps due to the four hundredth anniversary deadline. The film could have greatly assisted the status of the Ainu by seeking out contemporary activists to comment on the status of Ainu self-determination as an indigenous people vis-à-vis international human rights instruments.

The film poses the counter-intuitive challenge to the viewer of understanding possible ways to retrieve Ainu identity without first ever explicitly outlining who the contemporary Ainu are. In this sense viewers will need to put to use the ever-growing information provided in the extensive documentary homepage, to weave together the somewhat sketchy images and narratives of the film and retroactively supplement their understanding of the Ainu people. However, keeping the above caveats about foreign support for Ainu self-determination as well as scholarship driven by the Ainu themselves in mind, this film is on the mark in its spirit and I hope that the director will continue to pursue his cause of upgrading the website.

Jeffry Gayman, Hokkaido University, Sapporo, Japan


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RED WEDDING: Women Under the Khmer Rouge. A film by Lida Chan and Guillaume Suon; writer, Lida Chan, Guillaume Suon; produced by Rithy Panh. New York: Women Make Movies, 2012. 1 DVD (58 min.) US$350.00, Universities, Colleges & Institutions; US$125.00, Rental; US$89.00, K-12, Public Libraries & Select Groups. In Khmer, subtitled in English. Url:

Shot in Pursat Province, Cambodia between 2010 and 2012, Red Wedding explores one of the forced marriages of more than 250,000 women during Khmer Rouge rule (1975–1979). Interspersed with film footage and songs from the period, it is at times eerie in its flashbacks. The documentary follows the struggle of 48-year-old Sochan Pen who, at the age of sixteen, was forced to marry a Khmer Rouge soldier and was subsequently raped. Early on, the film displays the warm friendship of Chhean and Sochan, two adult women, bordering on middle-age, roughhousing.

But once the laughter dies down, Sochan tells us, “I feel sorry for my body. I hate my ex-husband. I want to cut off the parts of my body that he touched at that time.” Sochan remarries after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, has six kids, but her husband is killed and leaves her to feed them.

The Khmer Rouge had a policy of population growth; part of this can be explained by the idea that to fight neighbouring Vietnam, Democratic Kampuchea would need people (relaying Khmer Rouge wishful thinking, Ben Kiernan once lectured that the Khmer Rouge even argued that if one Cambodian could kill ten Vietnamese, Democratic Kampuchea could wipe out Vietnam). The film has an audio clip from a Khmer Rouge broadcast translated as follows: “The chief of the Community Party of Kampuchea gave a speech… [Pol Pot’s voice:] Today our country is small and sparsely populated. The country has only eight million inhabitants. We’re still far from the potential of our country. In the coming ten years, we will need twenty million Cambodians. We have no reason to reduce the number of our people or to maintain it. Our goal is to increase the number of people as soon as possible.”

Sochan’s story is emblematic of those women forced to marry men they did not know or love. Sochan suffered multiple rapes—a form of torture—and today suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. She can’t sleep and has headaches.

When Sochan and her friend are in a lotus pond harvesting, the scene is a metaphor for the lotus which grows in muddy water but is fragrant and beautiful, embodying the resilience that these women represent. What she wants to know, in her own words is the following, and she hopes the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia can produce answers:

“Why I was forced to marry…

Why the spies had to watch us…

Why after starving me the Khmer Rouge wanted to kill me.

And why I was forced to marry…if after the marriage the couples couldn’t stay together. Whether we got along or not, we were killed.”

If viewers watching expect closure, they will be disappointed; there appears to be no rhyme or reason. When Sochan questions those individuals responsible for her own forced marriage and suffering, they deny any knowledge. It’s a hall of mirrors. A character named Oeum blames the district chief. Then when the district chief is interviewed by Sochan, he denies being a district chief. He asks: “Do you have any proof?” The minimalist filmmaking style doesn’t let us understand who is in front of us at any given moment, which can be confusing.

The sister of Sochan’s ex-husband is more forthcoming. She sheds some light, but doesn’t know much. She concedes that “If we behaved correctly, we lived. Otherwise we died.” Of course that is an observation of life under Khmer Rouge rule, but it provides no satisfaction.

At times, the film feels as if the conversation is guided/scripted, but without an interviewer. It has a narrative film feel, but is a documentary. The directors, Chan and Suon, protégés of legendary Franco-Khmer filmmaker Rithy Panh, are probably asking questions. The movie has a very different atmosphere from “Enemies of the People,” which I have also reviewed. There is no smoking gun. No Nuon Chea character explaining that people were killed because they were enemies of the people. People were forced to marry because, apparently, the Khmer Rouge needed more people—but without food you aren’t going to have child-bearing mothers. Moreover, as Sochan attests, the newlyweds were killed whether or not they got along! Actually, we learn later that if they didn’t get along by the third night, they’d kill you because you were not going to procreate.

Men do come out looking pretty bad, except for one hero: Sochan’s uncle, who rescues and helps her during her ordeal with her ex-husband.

The movie ends with Sochan’s daughter getting married; it’s a parallel to Sochan’s own experience and a happy contrast. Many survivors of Pol Pot time—as the period is known for many—especially those who did not have a proper marriage, can do right for themselves through their children’s marriage. When I first returned to Cambodia in 1996, after 20 years away, I often saw excessive food ordering in restaurants as a kind of kneejerk reaction to the starvation felt during the Khmer Rouge period—a kind of “we will never be for want” testament. Marriage is perhaps another expression of this need to undo the mistakes of the past. Sochan sits her daughters down to tell them about her own forced marriage experience, but any remedy to the lack of justice for Cambodia’s past (and present) will need to wait for the next generation.

Sophal Ear, Occidental College, Los Angeles, USA


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