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Arts & Life

'The Missing Picture' Gets Under Your Skin In Remembering Horror

Strand Releasing

Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh has become one of Cambodia’s most eloquent voices about the horror inflicted on the country in the 1970s. His latest documentary, The Missing Picture, uses figurines and archival footage to document the horrors of the Khmer Rouge.

Panh was just 11 years old when the Khmer Rouge took over the capital city of Phnom Penh, then sent the entire population to the countryside to be re-educated, as they called it, or incarcerated in work camps or simply killed. Panh’s parents died, along with his sisters.

In the film, an actor speaks Panh’s description of the Khmer Rouge years. It’s a ghastly story, told in a flat voice filled with unrelenting scorn, if you listen carefully.

Credit Strand Releasing
Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh

The film reaches way beyond simple description of the events of Panh’s life. It’s about history and the problem of memory; it’s about the abilities and the liabilities of cinema; it’s about whether it’s possible to suck the human out of human beings. The movie shows the horror of ideology, as when some group of people grows drunk with the belief that it has a lock on truth. And the film also shows profound moments, as when Panh’s father stopped eating and died. The act infuriated young Panh, until he later understood that in those hellish circumstances, his father was showing him about free will.

So The Missing Picture is not confined to events in Cambodia in the 1970s.

Much of the film is done with palm-sized clay figures, shaped by a pair of hands which may be Rithy Panh’s, but the film never shows the body or the face of the artist. The hands shave a piece of clay into a human figure, and then paint hair on the head and clothing on the body.

“It’s my father,” says the voice.

Soon hundreds of these figures are arranged in scenes – harsh ones of workers in the countryside or small groups herded by men with guns. For pre-Khmer Rouge days, the film arranges figures in gentle domestic scenes. Panh recalls the abundance of markets and lovers laughing and kissing.

Then Khmer Rouge footage intrudes – the vicious leader Pol Pot or images of hundreds of workers walking slowly in long snaking lines. Some carry dirt or work in the dirt with shovels and adzes. You can’t determine what they’re doing or why – it’s just long joyless lines of slaves.

The clay figures get under your skin, and, believe me, into your dreams. They look simply like bland toy soldiers, but at the same time – with the narrator’s sharp description – you see what the Khmer Rouge did to people. They tried to destroy everything human beings care about. People could have nothing personal – no keepsakes, no watches. So the clay figures embody emptiness, yet they’re also full, beyond our ability to contemplate, with the misery of the human beings they represent.

The Khmer Rouge hold to a bizarre idea of creating equality; as the narrator says, having a saucepan became a sign of individuality, so private ownership of saucepans was forbidden. People could have nothing of their own other than a single spoon.

“Ideology kills,” says the narrator, and then, over staged Khmer Rouge propaganda footage, the voice says that the revolution took place only on film – and this remarkable movie takes you right into a fundamental ambiguity of the intersection between cinema and memory. Film footage does show things that actually happened, and in that way becomes an aid to memory. And film also distorts and fakes things.

In 1955, the early French New Wave director Alain Resnais made a short film about the Nazi concentration and death camps. Night and Fog is still brilliant, devastating work, and in The Missing Picture Rithy Panh gets at the same dilemma about how can people remember horror, when it’s passed, and when hard evidence is elusive – as it always is.

The clay figures Panh sculpts become like children’s dolls, and the film is like watching a naïve child acting out some trauma with dolls. And the deceptive naiveté of Panh’s figures reveals almost more than you can bear.

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