The Missing Picture

April 10, 2014



“There is no truth. Only cinema.”

Spoken by the narrator of Rithy Panh’s part-documentary, part-poetic memoir, The Missing Picture, the line refers to the footage of the collective farms taken by the cameramen of the Khmer Rouge depicting a working, productive society of ‘revolutionary’ comrades.  It’s a distillation of the thesis of Panh’s towering work on the traumatic history of his country and his youth that also functions as a withering riposte as well as a backhanded agreement to Jean Luc Godard’s belief that cinema failed by not capturing the concentration camps of the Holocaust.  After all, if the Nazis had filmed it, would they not have obstructed some elemental truth of it in favour of propaganda?  Even if they hadn’t, what would the value of seeing it have?  Using clay figures in miniature settings to depict his time as a teenager moving around the collectivist farms and eventually forests of Khmer Rouge Cambodia (or, rather, Democratic Kampuchea as it was known), Panh laments the false images captured by the government and attempts to reclaim the artistic representation of the atrocity. 

The clay figures used to recreate scenes from Panh’s childhood are rudimentary yet evocative, which is fitting, in a way, for both the Khmer Rouge’s program of dismantling all perceived capitalist corrupters including most technology as well as the representation of a child’s perspective.  The thread that never gets lost is that of a lost innocence, especially in the moments when Panh remembers the time before the forced evacuation of his home to when his family would eat together, his father would encourage studying, and his brother would play guitar with his band.  The figurines are also effectively expressive, contributing to the movingly mournful tone of the piece.  There’s a smug self-righteousness to the overseers and a tangible misery to their workers, especially in contrast to the propaganda films featuring Pol Pot and his adoring hordes that appear, sometimes cruelly, throughout.  The “created” elements of the clay memories are accentuated by the occasional appearance of the artist’s hand to move or change a figurine (for instance, when Panh’s figure in his black shirt is sitting and dreaming, it gets switched out for the version with the colourful shirt).  The self-evidently false, “created” aspects reach a deeper truth in both the reality of what happened and the emotional journey of its victim than the supposed documentary footage churned out by the regime.

The narration, written by Panh and Christophe Bataille, does not contain itself to recounting the horrors witnessed, for this film is closer to an essay than pure documentary or even memoir.  There’s a refutation of the notion that this was allowed to happen because of Buddhist roots, and there’s an admittance that the memories of Phnom Penh before the regime only tell one part of the story, and that there were cruel injustices done to the poor that led to the regime in the first place.  The themes are brought to the forefront time and again, but this not a story or a feeling where subtlety is an asset.  For all its somber mood, there’s a tangible feeling of angry sadness that comes to the surface time and again before returning to a reflection on personal trauma.

Using figurines to set up still scenes reminded me of the documentary Marwencol, where a man used dolls and action figures and detailed sets to photograph a narrative about a fictional World War II town to work this his own personal trauma.  The idea is similar here, but where that was a singular, personal story, Panh knows his own is a representation of the larger story of his country.  He uses art to reclaim a time stripped of artistic representation in history that should never be forgotten, and he uses his personal confrontation with his past to urge the country and the world to do the same.


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