With Her Third Asian Film, Sacrifice,Ellen Bruno Continues to Speak the Unspeakable
by Cara Mertes
Basically, universal responsibility is the feeling for other peoples suffering just as we feel our own.
The Dalai Lama
Ellen Bruno lives in paradox. A Westerner who has spent the better part of the last 20 years in Southeast Asia as an international relief worker, Bruno has seen first-hand the dark side of the much vaunted global economythe human cost of aggression under the guise of progressand the effects of years of civil war and genocide on ordinary peoples lives. Yet she remains an unabashed optimist. Part of her hope, she says, comes from the extraordinary people she has encountered in her work over the years, people who have suffered the disruption and devastation of their way of life. The way that people are able to hold their pain, she says, is remarkable. Compelled by their stories, Bruno turned to filmmaking, recently completing a trilogy of documentaries on the lives of the Cambodian, Tibetan and Burmese men and women she has met.
Speaking from her home in San Francisco this spring after returning from the Sundance Film Festival, Bruno recalled the first time a stranger, a Thai man with whom she was to work in a refugee camp, greeted her with the most intimate, harrowing details of his experience of massacre, loss of family and friends and torture. Twenty years later, she remains amazed at that encounter. It was her first lesson in witnessing, and as she continued her relief work, Bruno found herself becoming a professional witness, someone who listens to tales of other peoples seemingly unbearable experiences. In Brunos case, hearing these tales brought with it the responsibility of telling others, particularly Westerners like herself, what she knew and hopefully effecting a change in peoples thinking.
The individuality of Brunos work lies in the way she bridges experimental film techniques with documentary, creating subjective essays that are based on evidence. Like dreamscapes, Brunos films are impressionistic portraits of experiences that cant be processed rationally. Onscreen testimonials are melded with voiceovers of peoples memories, Buddhist parables and shorthand histories that give viewers some background and context with which to interpret what they watch. Theintimacy and depth of the portraits that result are trademarks of her work.
Each of Brunos films took about 18 months to make, once she decided on her topic. Samsara (1989), her first film, is an essay about Cambodia in the aftermath of genocide and civil war. Satya: A Prayer for the Enemy (1993) is based on the experiences of Tibetan Buddhist nuns who were imprisoned and tortured for their protests against the Chinese occupation of Tibet. Sacrifice (formerly called Slavegirls) (1998) is based on the stories of several young ethnic Burmese women caught up in the growing sex industry on the Thailand-Burma border. At 56 minutes, Sacrifice is Brunos longest and most ambitious project to date, and it continues her unbroken record of having premiered each of her films at Sundance.
Within the horror of the stories told, Brunos films are suffused with humanity, an appreciation of the beautiful, and even hope. Through a melding of cinematic techniques, including the use of non-linear narratives, slow motion, re-enactments, interviews and traditional music, it is Brunos intention, she says, to bring viewers to the same state of mind she was in when she heard these stories, to recreate a state of mind in which information, impressions, memory and history have equal weight and are directed towards an emotional response. Each film becomes an evocation that tries to explore a fundamental contradiction: how do you speak the unspeakable?
The statistics behind the stories are some of the 20th century's most appalling. In Cambodia, an estimated two million people (one in three Cambodians) have been killed in the last 25 years, first in the Khmer Rouge's massive genocidal campaign (1974-79), and subsequently in civil war. Because men and boys were targeted, Cambodia has become a country of women, where two out of three people are female. It has more land mines per square mile than any other country, resulting in the worlds highest amputee rate. It will take more than 50 years of steady work to clear all the mines, and many more generations to repair the damage done to the people and the land.
Bruno says that when she began filming Samsara with her friend Ellen Kuras (now an award-winning cinematographer), she had very little idea of what story she wanted to tell. The film follows their trip through Cambodia, but they do not see the country in the way the average tourist would. Samsara refers to the Buddhist concept of the endless cycle of suffering through birth, death and rebirth, and the film takes this as a metaphor, meditating on the place, history and cycles of suffering of the people of Cambodia. With long takes of landscapes and the people in them, punctuated by minimalist, poignant interviews shot in a former detention and execution center, Samsara refracts the first-person stories of Cambodians through Brunos own understanding of the enormity of the devastation.
Satya: A Prayer for the Enemy was the result of Bruno's work in Northern India, near Tibet, where she taught many of the Tibetan nuns who are interviewed in the film. In Tibet, an estimated 1.5 million ethnic Tibetans have died as a direct result of China's occupation since 1949. Forced sterilization for Tibetan women, imprisonment and persecution are common. Tibet is a deeply Buddhist country; 99 percent of the Tibetan population practices Buddhism and 20 percent were clerics before 1949. It is said that before the occupation, every family gave one member to Buddhist practice, either as a monk or a nun. For their resistance to Chinese authority, which ultimately has demanded an abandonment of the Tibetan way of life, Buddhist clerics have long been persecuted by Chinese police. Nuns in particular, although they comprise only ten percent of the clerics, are responsible for more than 30 percent of the protests against the Chinese occupation, making them a special target.
Satya is an intimate portrait of belief and punishment, of a situation in which the power of the nuns' faith insured an exact retribution from the Chinese jailers struggling to break their commitment. It was Bruno's first film to focus specifically on experience from women's perspectives (an approach that has increasingly been adopted by relief and human rights organizations). Bruno's problem in making Satya was the opposite of most documentary directors -- she suffered from too much intimacy with those participating. At times, she says, she found that the interviews were impossible to use because of their familiarity. Satya includes re-enactments shot to illustrate the interviews, which tell of imprisonment, torture and reflection. It, too, hinges on a Buddhist sensibility reflected through the choices Bruno made in image composition, music and the soundtrack.
Bruno's most recent film was partly shot in Burma. The country has been under a dictatorship since 1962, and human rights reports spell out an unofficial campaign of ethnic cleansing that has resulted in the dislocation and killing of Burmese living in the mountainous northern part of the country. Burma's military government renamed the country Myanmar in 1979 and closed the borders to foreigners in 1988. Today, travel for visitors is extremely limited and information about domestic realities is scarce. Because of the campaign against the Burmese in the north, conditions of extreme poverty have produced a population of over 10,000 young Burmese women from the mountain villages whoin an effort to support families deprived of their land and jobswork in the sex-trade industry in neighboring Thailand. Because they have almost no access to health care information, and little power to negotiate safe sex with their clients, many of these women are contracting AIDS.
In the course of making her films, Bruno has sometimes found herself on the wrong side of local law enforcement. During the filming of Sacrifice, Bruno and her translator-collaborator talked their way into a Thai brothel where, through a translation misunderstanding, they were given permission to shoot material for the film with a small camcorder. Bruno was ecstatic that footage of the girls actual working conditions inside a brothel, which had eluded her for weeks, was hers for the taking. Then the owner of the brothel woke up, realized what was going on and called the police. The police asked Bruno to erase the video footage she had recorded, then hauled her and her translator to the local jail when she refused. After six more hours of interrogation, Bruno decided that she was putting her translator into jeopardy, and she agreed to erase the tape.
When asked why she returns again and again to troubled, potentially dangerous circumstances, Bruno simply says, I have enormous energy for community-based work. It is a kind of calling. I am good at pulling something out of nothing. Far from being a kind of Florence Nightingale with a movie camera, Bruno bases her work on the kind of empathy and familiarity with her subjects that comes with years of friendship and common work. She does not let her agenda rest with a new age notion of oneness, which can too easily stand in for exoticism. Three themes continuously emerge, grounding the narratives of the films: Buddhism, womens experiences and the rhythms of everyday life.
When asked if she runs the risk of romanticizing her subjects through the beauty of her images and the richness of her soundtracks, Bruno responds, My mission is to touch people in a visceral way and not overload people intellectually. True motivation comes from their hearts being touched. Unless you have motivation, nothing will happen. My job is to stoke the fires a little.
Bruno is political in the sense that she hopes that her films will make people aware of long-standing but often little understood problems and will bring in resources to troubled areas. (As an example, Satya: A Prayer for the Enemy raised over $100,000 to help political refugees in Tibet.) But she has no patience for polemics and political dogmatism. Rather than being intellectual exercises in critical analysis, her films rely on viewers capacity to empathize. Stories of faith, suffering, survival and hope take precedence over statistics, experts, politics and economics. Yet Bruno manages to reveal the specifics in the universal, and in the process, makes films that are accessible to many audiences, not just those familiar with the particular circumstances on which she is focusing.
As her work continues, so do the paradoxes. One of the greatest for Bruno lies in assessing where her efforts are most needed. Individual efforts make a difference, she says, but too many things are not represented in the media. My true passion is relief work; filmmaking is very isolating. But reaching mainstream audiences is an important part of her self-described mission, so she continues producing films and seeing them broadcast on public television stations around the country. For now, she is contemplating a trilogy on aging, sickness and dying. Non-westerners have a lot to tell us about dying, she explains, and she hopes to shock people a little bit into challenging their traditional associations with their bodies. Given her previous films, one thing is certain. A trilogy on death, in Brunos hands, will be life-affirming.
Ellen Bruno's films are distributed on video by Film Library. For information call (800) 343-5540.
Cara Mertes is an independent producer, teacher and writer based in New York City. She was executive producer/director for the ITVS-funded PBS series Signal to Noise: Life with Television and is currently series producer for American Originals: 100 Years of Women and Popular Culture, in development with Clio, Inc.: Visualizing History.
This article originally appeared in the April 1998 issue of Release Print, the magazine of Film Arts Foundation. Reprinted by permission.
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