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The Missing Picture (L’image Manquante) by Rithy Panh


Rithy Panh has devoted his career to making films about the atrocities and legacies of the Cambodian Genocide, from the precisely documented torture facility described in S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, to the indentured servitude faced by present-day sex workers in Paper Cannot Wrap up Embers. Throughout, Panh has remained steadfastly situated in the present: while his films concern the past, they do not attempt to enter or relive it, but rather interrogate historical meaning for the purposes of understanding a troubled present.

The Missing Picture, his latest, similarly begins in a contemporary moment, when Panh returns to his family home for the first time since being forcibly removed on April 17, 1975, a day shy of his 11th birthday. The house, as Panh’s narrator (Randal Douc) explains in voiceover, is long gone, with a gambling den, then a karaoke bar, and finally a brothel standing in its place. But Panh insists he remembers every detail. Beginning with that moment of evacuation, the film traces the years in which he and his family were sent to the countryside to be “re-educated” with hard labor, famine, and brutal punishment.

The Missing Picture

In its attempt to tell this autobiographical story—in essence, Panh’s coming of age—the film encounters a difficulty: because the Khmer Rouge confiscated or destroyed everyone’s personal property, leaving only clothes dyed black and a single spoon for each individual, very little remains of the period. The film, then, becomes a lament for these “missing pictures” that would otherwise show what happened. It is also a way of reconstituting what those images might have looked like. To this end, Panh uses clay figures, which we see in some scenes delicately being carved, and arranges them on intricate diorama sets of his family’s lively patio in Phnom Penh, the thatched hut his mother built in the forest, and the muddy rice paddies where he was forced to work.

The effect of these small, roughly painted figures is striking, particularly for the way they’re handled in the film. They’re touched with great care as if they carried the souls of the people they represent: Panh’s father in a white suit, his modish brother sporting a guitar, and Panh himself, as a boy, dressed in a red and orange shirt. The clay figures are generally left unanimated, though there is a sequence in which three children, who we’ve been told died from hunger, float magically through the sky. More often, they sit unmoving in the dirt or lying on a wood slat bed in the infirmary, their stillness a reminder that what’s lost, pictures and people both, can never be retrieved, however much we might approximate their images.

This kind of restaging of the past is in many ways antithetical to the reenacted scenes of murder as directed by the executioners in Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, and not only for the differences in the historical specificities of Cambodia from 1975–79, and Indonesia from 1965–66. Where Oppenheimer, in his concern for the psychological justifications for murder enabled by power, dwells on the horrifying creativity of the perpetrators, Panh addresses the annihilating force of genocide. If, in comparison to Oppenheimer’s vibrant actors, Panh’s clay figures appear troublingly inert, it is because they are used to illustrate the film’s historical condition: namely, that the Khmer Rouge destroyed not only lives but the images and memories that would otherwise attest to its terrible and extensive effects.

Interspersed with the clay scenes, shot either in still close-ups or slow pans, is archival footage from the period. Of the pictures that do remain from the period, most were created by the Khmer Rouge for propagandistic purposes. As Panh observes, the revolution they were promised, and the one they chanted about in slogans, existed only in film. Looking closer at footage of child laborers, however, he wonders whether it’s possible to detect the fatigue, the starvation, and the cruelty in the images before us. He speculates that Ang Sarun, a Khmer Rouge cameraman whose footage of a speech by Pol Pot is unusually hazy, accidentally described the truth of the situation. The Khmer Rouge authorities might have suspected this, too: Sarun was later executed, though, as Panh notes, his images managed to survive. Importantly, Panh does not suggest that the existing footage is deceitful, but that it is incomplete. Around these grainy images, then, he sketches the outline of the missing pictures he calls into view through the narration of his memories, the illustration of the clay figures, and on several occasions, the insertion of these figures into the black and white scenes.

However ambivalently the film treats the Khmer Rouge footage, it prompts Panh’s memories, and allows his clay figures to come to a kind of solemn, unmoving life. Moreover, these reels are all that is left, and are themselves threatened with vanishing. The Missing Picture begins and ends with images of rusted film canisters, piled on top of each other, with ribbons of 35mm film caked with mud and visibly distorted. It is easy to imagine these fragile remnants resting in the vaults of Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center, an archive Panh founded in 2006 to preserve the country’s history in film. Though many of the images stored there may be painful, even “cruel,” as Panh describes, they are all the more necessary given the absence of footage that survives. In an interview, Panh has said that survival isn’t always granted to those who are “stronger, braver, or better” than the rest. Rather, the people and images that make it often do so because of the sacrifices of others, whether flashing an expression of defiance, holding out a protective hand, or sharing an already stretched ration of rice with a starving child.


Genevieve Yue

GENEVIEVE YUE is an assistant professor of culture and media at Eugene Lang College, The New School for Liberal Arts.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2014

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