Elevate Difference

Le Papier ne Peut pas Envelopper la Braise (Paper Cannot Wrap Up Embers)

Directed by Rithy Panh

[Paper Cannot Wrap up Embers] provides a numbing portrait of the everyday lives of young Cambodian women who have been forced into prostitution in the aftermath of decades of war and genocide. Their lives are characterized by drug abuse, chronic health problems, and violence and brutality experienced at the hands of their “clients.” The film opens with scenes of a girl crying and shows the women sleeping and eating lunch with their babies at their sides.

As is common for documentaries these days, the film is not narrated and consists entirely of interviews and scenes of women going about their daily lives: eating, sleeping, putting on make up, and taking “ma” (methamphetamine) in order to anesthetize themselves enough to go to work. In the absence of contextualizing narration, and lacking an understanding of the recent history of Cambodia, it was difficult for me as a viewer to feel I had more than a very superficial understanding of the socio-political situation that has prompted such poverty and misery to become part of daily life. Instead I was simply struck by the overwhelming resignation felt by most of the women.

The women understand the reason this has happened to them is because they were born poor and they don’t see any way out of it. This is the most striking and disturbing aspect of [Paper Cannot Wrap up Embers]. Even as the women describe enduring horrific situations (and there are many in this film), they tend to do so with either an air of detachment or else with raw physical pain, as in the scene when one of the women comes back from a painful abortion and can’t stop crying, saying “It feels like my uterus has been ripped to shreds.”

In one of the few mentions of the Khmer Rouge, one woman’s mother stops by the brothel and describes how much worse poverty was during that time: “You think your life is tough? You have to put up with it! If you’d been born under the Khmer Rouge, you’d have starved to death or been executed. Today you sell yourself to buy rice by the kilo. When will all this end? I feel helpless.”

This documentary is difficult to watch because it leaves the viewer feeling helpless as well. Part of me wishes they would have ended on a more hopeful note, or suggested ways for the viewer to get involved to better the lives of these women. Films like this can be overwhelming to some people and make them prefer ignorance because of the feeling of powerlessness over the situation.

On the other hand, I think the filmmaker portrayed the situation honestly and realistically, and sometimes reality is very painful to watch. I hope [Paper Cannot Wrap up Embers] inspires some viewers to learn more about life in Cambodia and about the global problems of prostitution and sex slavery. If nothing else, perhaps it offers a shred of dignity to these women by giving them a medium through which they can speak for themselves.

Written by: Liz Simmons, September 21st 2009

Readers/viewers may also be interested in "The Good Woman of Bangkok," a documentary made about ten years ago by an Australian film maker. During the shooting of this film, the director befriended a Bangkok prostitute who became the principal subject of the narrative. Many complications ensued once this personal connection was established. Definitely worth watching with regard to an understanding of the cruel effects of the sex trade in South East Asia, although "Bangkok," like "Le Papier ne peut pas envelopper la braise," does not make for cheery viewing.