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Film of the Week: The Missing Picture

By Jonathan Romney on March 20, 2014 in Film Comment, Jonathan Romney's Film of the Week

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“There are many things that men should not see or know,” goes the voiceover at the end of Rithy Panh’s The Missing Picture. “Should he see them, he would be better off dying. But should any of us see or know them, then he must live to tell of them.” Rithy Panh’s cinema is an exemplary case of the imperative to bear witness. Born in 1964, the Cambodian filmmaker lived through the murderous days of his country’s Khmer Rouge regime; he survived his parents and siblings, who died of starvation and overwork under the regime that forcibly imposed a brutal new social order, a would-be revolutionary utopia of agrarianism, on a population torn away from the lives they had known.

The Missing Picture

The Missing Picture

Panh’s attempts as a filmmaker to come to terms with his country’s recent past include the drama Rice People (94) and several documentaries about the Pol Pot era, such as S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (03) and Duch, Master of the Forges of Hell (12). But The Missing Picture is harder to categorize. Documentary, personal essay, historical reconstruction, film poem, therapeutic exercise—it’s something of all of these. The film is essentially a personal reminiscence of the horrors of the Khmer Rouge era and its depredations, as well as Panh’s attempt to summon up from his memory a modern Cambodian society that was violently destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, and that now seems as lost as Atlantis—the urban environment of Phnom Penh, Panh’s birthplace, before the city was occupied and forcibly evacuated in 1975.

A key representation of that lost past comes in the image on a strip of old film rescued from a decaying, crumbling reel: a traditionally dressed female dancer, sinuously going through what is presumably a modern movie-studio variation on old steps. Seen briefly at the beginning of Panh’s film, the dancer embodies life, pleasure, sexuality, spirituality, artistry, national history, read her as you will—but above all, she moves. Very little else in Panh’s film does. The premise of The Missing Picture is that the horrific past that the film invokes, together with the happier era that preceded it, must be reconstructed out of whatever simple materials are available, because true images of these periods do not exist. The Khmer Rouge destroyed not only modern Cambodian society but its culture and its images of itself, while the regime’s own filmed pictures are mendacious: staged propaganda tableaux of Pol Pot, his inner circle, and his supposedly faithful multitudes, but never honest images of the conditions under which Cambodians were forced to live. Instead, to re-create truthful images of the world he remembers, Rithy Panh fashions clay figures, seemingly childish squat effigies painted to resemble real or representative people, and arranged in realistic settings. Early on, we see a family gathering or a pop concert on a Phnom Penh street; later, vast grey panoramas of the quarry-like work sites that so much of the country had been transformed into, in an attempt to forcibly establish the People’s Republic of Kampuchea as a “pure” rural society inspired by the back-to-nature ideals of Rousseau.

The Missing Picture

At first, the hand-painted models—sculpted by Sarith Mang, although the film’s overall design is by Panh himself—look naïve and clumsy, but as the film proceeds, their chunky, handmade quality makes them all the more expressive. At various points in the film, as you see the masses of workers, adults, and children, hauling loads of rice or earth on yokes on their shoulders across landscapes reduced to calcified lunar surfaces, you are reminded horribly of the Chapman Brothers’ Hell, their diorama of an exaggerated Holocaust scenario populated by tiny plastic models. But the Chapmans were out partly to shock with overstatement, to create a black-comic embodiment of the unthinkable, to be displayed in an institutional art gallery context. Panh’s aim is simpler, and more bitterly direct. The simplicity of the scenarios he creates exposes the truth of the false simplicity of the Khmer Rouge dream (this new world’s “purity” unveiled as deprivation and void).

At the same time, his method performs an exorcising function, by allowing the truth to be told in very simple terms, yet indirectly. The models serve because reliable photographic evidence is missing—and their makeshift nature reminds us that firsthand evidence is missing, as comprehensively erased as the society that it would have documented. It’s significant that The Missing Picture ends with a scale model of a psychoanalytic session—Panh’s figurines are this film’s equivalent of the toys often used by therapists, which enable children to articulate traumas and abuses that they might otherwise keep silent.

Panh was a child when he experienced the horrors he recounts—he was 11 when his family were driven out of their Phnom Penh home—and so his use of models is especially to the point. Speaking directly about his past through his film’s toy-like vistas, he presents a child’s experience of horror as a privileged vantage point on the unthinkable. I mean “privileged” only in this sense: it is in adopting the position of a child who endures horrors but fails to understand the reason for them that a film can reach a new position of understanding. Comparisons might be drawn with a somewhat different approach to atrocity, that of the recent documentary about death squads in Indonesia, The Act of Killing. Some commentators felt that it was at once trivializing and abusive—even an act of collusion—on the part of Joshua Oppenheimer and his collaborators to encourage former death-squad members to make fantasy movies re-enacting their crimes. But like Panh’s film, Oppenheimer’s starts with the premise that what cannot easily be addressed directly can perhaps be approached from an angle of play—which may ultimately prove the most serious possible approach.

The Missing Picture

Panh’s method can at moments seem flippant or precious: it never really works when he digitally incorporates his clay figures into a newsreel of old Phnom Penh (the whole point of his figures is that they are motionless, even if his camera is not). The film’s first-person French-language commentary, seemingly voicing Panh’s autobiographical account of the Cambodian ordeal, is in fact written by Christophe Bataille and read by Randal Douc—doubly distancing the text from Rithy Panh as original narrator, yet also thereby enhancing its directness, giving it the detached authority of a poetic statement. Matched with the film’s images—sometimes beautiful, most often all the more harrowing because of the gentleness of the effigy-like figures—the text takes on a savage, bitterly melancholic poetry that recalls the incantatory matter-of-factness of Jean Cayrol’s text for Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog. As one line of the voiceover puts it, in reference to the possibility of revolt under crushing oppression: “Sometimes a silence is a scream.” The inexpressiveness of Panh’s dolls could hardly be more expressive, their immobility suggestive of the uncontainable energies of a nation frozen by history. Their silence, of course, is deafeningly, furiously eloquent.

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