Beatocello’s Umbrella Falls Into a Familiar Trap


“I never had the intention to rescue Cambodia’s entire young generation! Never!” insists Swiss doctor and musician Beat Richner, the subject of Georges Gachot’s documentary Beatocello’s Umbrella.

If you detect a hint of false modesty there, it’s only the first of many wrong notes struck by this well-intentioned but terribly clunky film. If Richner were a fictional character, he’d be widely criticized for being ludicrously idealized (and probably played by Robin Williams).

After creating the persona of Beatocello, a cello-playing clown, and performing children’s songs in ’70s Zurich, he moved to Cambodia after the fall of the Khmer Rouge and founded five hospitals. He’s likely a benevolent man who’s helped many people.

The problem is that Beatocello’s Umbrella falls into the trap of so many films about well-meaning whites helping people of color in the Third World: It’s only interested in Cambodian people’s struggles to the extent that they contribute to Richner’s nobility. If Richner were Cambodian himself, I suspect Gachot might not care enough about him to make a film about him.

The number of times Cambodians sing Richner’s praises and even put down their own compatriots in order to exalt him as a role model are beyond count; Gachot clearly wasn’t worried abut the dangers of liberal racism.

Ironically, Richner is harder on himself than Beatocello’s Umbrella is. In an interview near the film’s end, he hints that he’s a lonely workaholic who’s compromised his ideals to fund the hospitals. Gachot lets this possibility lie before filming some more cute Cambodian kids.