Rithy Panh’s The Missing Picture—one of five Best Foreign Film nominees at this year’s Academy Awards, which had its US premiere last Friday at the Art Theatre in Long Beach—is foremost about memory. And Panh explores memory in all its forms: personal, collective, historicized.
In 1975, Panh was 13 when blood began to spill across Cambodia under the dictatorship of Pol Pot and his pillaging Khmer Rouge regime. Panh has never shied away from covering the Khmer Rouge hell, becoming Cambodia’s preeminent documentarian with S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine in 2003 and Duch, Master of the Forges of Hell in 2012. What distinguishes those films from Missing is the latter’s inherently personal—yet distanced—approach to living a nightmare.
The lesser known of genocides, the Khmer Rouge—through the push of fundamental communism—destroyed Cambodia’s middle-class by essentially removing them from the human spectrum. What was truly going on was the systematic killing of hundreds of thousands of the Khmer Rouge’s so-called enemies, many of which were simple Cambodian people.
“Pigs become readers since readers were pigs,” the narrative states bitterly with the image of actual swine coursing about a destroyed library with another image of a school acting as a concentration camp.
To make sure not too many questioned the Khmer Rouge, the regime would use film—purely propaganda—to show the country how “great” things were. The great Democratic Kampuchea.
This propaganda is the only documentation left of the era—and what is missing, of course, is the missing picture behind all the images we, in the words of Panh, “already own.”
Using meticulously carved clay figures, Panh creates his own narrative—written by Christophe Bataille and narrated with a monotonous chill by Randal Douc, as if Panh were narrating himself—of the horrifying stretch of time in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979. One heart-wrenching scene shows a beautiful close-up of sculptor Sarith Mang’s hand, the face of the sculptor never revealed in the film, discussing the particular love for a figurine as it is being created: “This is my father.”
His father and the rest of Panh’s family are placed in front of Khmer Rouge archival footage to chilling effect: looking far older than just forty years ago—harkening to the holocaust most know from WWII—the deteriorated film paired with his family’s experience shows us just how many pictures we are “missing” in the tale of life, particularly when life is stripped down to horrors.
The still-life of the figurines, each of whom offer a remarkable sense of expression, coming to life against the backdrop of Khmer Rouge footage comes at a cost for Panh. The pain of reliving his tale is an admitted attempt to remove himself of these pictures: “I want to rid myself of these pictures of hunger and suffering so I show it to you.”
The overarching point—with its philosophical musings of how limiting our comprehension of events, particularly in a world dominated and driven by images, can be—is one that not overtly hammered into the viewer. It has to be repeated—like the minimalist-yet-constant presence of Marc Marder’s musical score—and patiently taken in or the viewer is to fall into the many traps of memory.
This point is most driven home when the teenager Panh, having caught a fish despite fishing being prohibited, rushes back to camp to give it to his mother. He discovers her dead. But rather than showcase scenes of famine or the harrowing images of racks of skulls to be found later, Panh reverts to the images of happiness he shared with his mother and family before the destruction. Scenes of reading poetry, of enjoying meals together, of love:
“This picture is not missing.”
The Missing Picture is now playing at Art Theatre, located at 2025 E 4th Street. For information and tickets, visit www.arttheatrelongbeach.com.