For years, people in the arts or in journalism have, in conversation, said of their vocation, “I didn’t choose it; it chose me.” At times this is an at least half-glib attempt to rationalize the often nonremunerative nature of their endeavors. But the truism gains some heft if looked at from a different angle.
Consider the film artists whose work could not escape, even had they wanted it to, a world-historic trauma that also had a profound personal meaning for them. One thinks of Claude Lanzmann and the Holocaust. One wonders what the Russian filmmaker Aleksei German would have done had Stalin never existed, or what the filmmaker Edward Yang’s oeuvre might look like had the specter of the militaristic Kuomintang government not haunted it.
Yang and German were fiction filmmakers. Lanzmann was a documentarian. The Cambodian-born director Rithy Panh, whose impetus for filmmaking was Pol Pot, works in both fiction and documentaries; the documentaries are especially distinctive and imaginative, and in recent years, more and more personal.