Memory and Desire: Stranger by the Lake, The Missing Picture, William Yang: My Generation

FILM, Film Festivals
At the New Zealand International Film Festival: SAM BROOKS on Alain Guiraudie’s queer thriller; BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM on Rithy Panh’s recovery of a terrible past; and ANDY PALMER on William Yang’s photographic memory.

When I took my seat in the audience for Stranger by the Lake, I had no doubt that what I had ahead was the gayest film in the festival, surrounded invariably by gay men and their straight women dates. I also knew that I was in for a thriller of some kind. What I didn’t know was that the film was going to combine the two.

Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake is a fairly standard thriller made interesting, and frankly unique, by it’s queer authorship. The film revolves around the titular lake, a place where gay men meet each other and cruise in the forest nearby. Our barely named protagonist (Pierre Deladonchamps) is like anybody else who goes to the lake; he goes meets guys, he takes off all his clothes, swims around, and then cruises in the forest. He runs into a friend (Patrick d’Assumcao), an old divorced man who isn’t there to cruise guys but just to watch the lake in peace and they form a friendship. The film really kicks into gear when a handsome, Tom Selleck-esque stranger (Christophe Paou) appears at the lake and our protagonist becomes infatuated with him.

It’s not the plot that makes this film remarkable. The thing that has garnered it attention on the festival circuit—a dubious enough moniker as that is—is the unsimulated gay sex. I wouldn’t say there’s a lot of it, but there’s enough of it, and it’s depicted and used in a way that believably amps up the tension and the audience’s involvement in the characters. The film has a refreshing approach to male sexuality—a surprising variety of male bodies are show onscreen with a lack of vanity or judgment, and it’s treated with equal amounts of respect and humour.

Beyond that, there’s an undercurrent of social commentary throughout. Guiraudie doesn’t judge the cruising of his characters, but as the film gets into darker and more foreboding territory, it’s presented as another risk the protagonist is taking and one that could lead to anything worse. The film also comments on the nature of infatuation, even though the protagonist knows that the stranger, Michel, is without a doubt dangerous, and his attraction is palpable and by far the most uncomfortable thing about the film. Outside of the all the gay sex and nudity portrayed, this man’s infatuation in the face of all reason is what made me shiver and shift awkwardly in my seat.

None of this is on the surface of the film. If an audience member doesn’t want to engage with it, they don’t have to. Upfront, this is an engaging, well-crafted, luxuriously paced thriller, albeit one with a niche audience. On the down-low, this is Haneke directing a Bel Ami film, and if both of those things mean anything to you, then Stranger by the Lake will be very much up your alley.—Sam Brooks

Cambodian director Rithy Panh’s The Missing Picture takes on one of the 20th Century’s most notorious dehumanisation campaigns, the Khmer Rouge regime during the 1970s, and makes it painfully humanised.  Winner of the Un Certain Regard at Cannes 2013, the mix between documentary, found footage, and wooden models/dioramas, certainly has a curiously playful construction. But it’s a deadly serious exercise.

Through his approach, history becomes something that is recovered from the darkness. Lifeless models re-enact films and memories that were never expressed. Propaganda films are superimposed with what was hidden by the hack government filmmakers—the Khmer Rouge parades and political rallies were hiding, as Panh suggests, some key background images. Panh uses a very sardonic narration to overlay the images. One gets the impression that it’s Panh’s personal account, but in actual fact, it was written by Christophe Bataille and read by Randal Douc.

The whole result is a little distancing, but it functions to allow room for an audience to recontextualise the images (reminiscent of the marvellous Andrei Ujic? film, The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceau?escu). Perhaps Panh over-compensated in trying to bring the audience back in with the mawkish score—silence would have worked better, along with the closing credits masterpiece that is Ros Serey Sothea and Sinn Sisamouth’s New Year’s Eve (the two, who were also killed by the Khmer Rouge, add more than a poignant closing touch—silent, but not silenced).

Panh has covered the Khmer Rouge before, but this film is an almost unbearably personal account. In fact, this film also represents Panh himself trying to fill in the gaps, his own missing pictures. He lost his parents and siblings, and he was forced to work in prison labour camps as a boy. His models almost have a child-like simplicity to them. As if there’s a lost innocence and a psychological trauma that he’s trying to work through himself.

But despite Panh’s horrific personal story, the alienating formal construction also has a further effect. It prevents the audience from becoming subsumed into Panh’s personal story, and instead pushes his own family’s tragedy into a wider narrative—a narrative in which between two to three million of his own countrymen were lost. But, the missing picture is also the fact that these individuals are still dehumanised by contemporary cautionary representations of the Khmer Rouge: the horrors of the skulls, the mass graves, and the death toll debates. Panh, in his own formally inventive way, shows devastatingly, the care and detail that was exterminated in each of the Khmer Rouge’s murdered victims.—Brannavan Gnanalingam

I’m William Yang and I’ve been taking photographs in Sydney since the early ’70s. I began doing performances, talking with my photographs projected behind me in 1989 … My third piece, Sadness, was a big success. And it toured Australia and overseas … I used to call my works ‘monologues with slide projections’ … Now I call myself ‘a storyteller’.” So begins William Yang: My Generation.

I first came upon William Yang a decade ago when I found a copy of his book Sadness in the library. Yang’s biography is rather intriguing—a second-generation Chinese-Australian brought up on the sugar cane field in north Queensland, who moved to Sydney and discovered a different life. Sadness wove together the discovery of his Chinese heritage and the cost of the AIDS epidemic on his adopted community. The story of Yang’s childhood, his family, and that of the immigrant Chinese was moving, and spoke of a history I was unaware of. It doesn’t really need to be said that his photos examining the AIDS epidemic, including the death of an ex-lover, were equally moving. Yang studied architecture prior to his move to Sydney and seemed to be a bit of an accidental photographer—just someone who had a camera and ended up documenting his scene, his friends, and his acquaintances in Sydney. Yang isn’t a Nan Goldin copy; though largely utilising the snapshot approach, his photos generally are much more celebratory, and look less at the sadness and violence of life.

My Generation is essentially a recording of a work commissioned by the Australian National Portrait Gallery and first performed in 2008. Really it’s a part of his memoir—little vignettes from his life in the 1970s and 1980s accompanied by his photos. There’s more than a hint of the gossip columnist in many of the anecdotes, but ultimately its stories of people dying. A lot of the names don’t have much resonance for me, but within Yang’s circles are the theatrical (Patrick White, Robyn Nevin, Jim Sharman, Neil Armfield, and Kate Fitzpatrick), the arts (Brett Whiteley and Martin Sharp), fashion (Jenny Kee and Linda Jackson), the Sydney gay and lesbian community, and the burgeoning Sydney Mardi Gras.

Unlike Sadness, the tales don’t hold much interest for me, possibly because I don’t know most of the characters, maybe because I don’t have the same emotional engagement. There are many names that appear, seemingly just because Yang has a photo… and a story. This creates a disjointed feel as people come and go. Though there are also ongoing narratives, especially White and Whiteley (and their falling out) and Sharpe. It’s a bit like watching someone’s holiday slideshow—occasionally interesting but something that has much more meaning to the storyteller than to the audience. I can’t help but think that this would have been more satisfying in book form, where Yang could have added more detail and moved away from the strictly chronological telling.

Yang’s final words are: “And that’s what I’ve been doing these last few years; trawling through my photos, trying to make sense of the past… like the children I never had they will tell my stories when I’m gone,” though as My Generation demonstrates the photos don’t in themselves tell the whole story.—Andy Palmer

Stranger by the Lake’, ‘The Missing Picture’ and ‘William Yang: My Generation’ screen at the New Zealand International Film Festival 2013, opening in Auckland on July 18, Wellington on July 26, Christchurch on August 1, Dunedin on August 8, and tours the remainder of the country thereafter. For regional dates, programme details, and screening times, visit nzff.co.nz.
The Lumière Reader reports from the New Zealand International Film Festival every winter. For additional commentary and opinion, follow us on Twitter.