March 21 is World Down Syndrome Day. While the disability isn’t mystified in the West, in some parts of the world the condition remains a sign of bad karma or even a curse. In 2012, German film-maker Marc Eberle, 41, shot a disturbing short documentary about 13-year-old Savary, who was kept in a small cage in Cambodia by her parents because they didn’t know how to deal with their daughter’s condition. Breaking the Cage will show at Meta House on Thursday. Julius Thiemann spoke to the director about ethical film-making and different perceptions of disability in Cambodia and Europe.
How did you feel witnessing and filming Savary being locked in the cage by her mother?
It was incredibly emotional for me, but at the same time I thought: this is a ‘classic Cambodian story’.
What do you mean by that?
The parents who lock up the child in the cage are ignorant. The people who don’t buy the mother’s vegetables in the market because they are afraid of getting Down syndrome are ignorant. The way people view Down syndrome here is like in a parallel universe where evil spirits cause diseases. I am not saying at all that the people are dumb – the message of the film is that many people don’t know what Down syndrome is or what it is caused by.
On the one hand, people scold the mother for locking the child up in a cage, and on the other hand, they don’t buy her vegetables because they are afraid of getting infected. How does that work?
In Germany, it would be illegal to lock a dog away in a small cage like this. Things are acceptable [here] that most Westerners wouldn’t think were. That is because the culturally associated logic is different. There are different ways of looking at the world.
What is so captivating about the scene when Savary sits in the cage and drinks from a big green plastic bowl and stares into the camera?
Savary bears the looks of the audience, and the audience bears her looks. That creates a connection between the two parties. She looks so normal in that cage and by accepting it, she becomes what people treat her like: an animal in a cage or a zoo. I hope that people’s main reaction is discomfort because this is the forbidden gaze, the perpetrator’s perspective: we’re outside, and she is locked up. Film-making is always moral in its distribution of gazes. There is a moment when she drinks from the bowl while looking straight at us, confronting us: ‘Who is looking at whom now?’ The gaze and self-reflexive moment of a protagonist looking straight into the camera destroys the seamless film reality.
Is it ethical to film this?
This moment felt like the forbidden gaze, unethical for some. But for her, it is normal because she sits in the cage all day. Filming documentaries is like voyeurism – not in a sexual way. You focus and look at socially, culturally, politically or whatever taboos where others turn their heads away.
You weren’t only the director but also cameraman. What did shooting this documentary feel like?
I don’t like filming at all. I don’t like sticking a camera in somebody’s face or to push to the front to get the best picture. That’s not me. But the budget for the film wasn’t large enough to pay for a cameraman. When I filmed the scene within the cage, I just looked at the rims of the frame of the camera just to see the girl is in focus.
How is Savary doing now?
I assume that she isn’t locked up in the cage anymore. Three days a week she goes to the school of a Cambodian NGO. All of a sudden the child isn’t dumb as everybody thought. She’s learned so much in three months she had gone there when we shot the film. She can even read Khmer. She is now socialised with her siblings and no longer aggressive towards them because she gets the right education.