If there is a way to make a film about genocide and mass atrocities comfortable to watch, filmmaker Rithy Panh has found the formula with The Missing Picture, Cambodia’s first ever Oscar nominee (for Best Foreign Language Film last year). An autobiographical documentary that makes impressive use of clay figurines and soothingly poetic voiceovers, The Missing Picture recounts Panh’s extraordinary experience as a young teenager who, along with millions of other Cambodians, saw his life suddenly end on April 17, 1975. To clarify, he is still alive, but daily life—the experience you and I know as the existence of an identifiable individual—simply stopped that day, and in some aspects has not yet been fully restored in Cambodia.
Walker Art Center
Director: Rithy Panh
Producer: Catherine Dussart
Writers: Rithy Panh, Christophe Bataille
Cinematographer: Prum Mesa
Music: Marc Marder
Editors: Rithy Panh, Marie-Christine Rougerie
Cast: Randal Douc
Premiere: May 19, 2013 – Cannes Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: March 19, 2014
US Distributor: Strand Releasing
This wasn’t clear to me until I visited the country last year and saw the lush green rice paddies in Vietnam turn to brown dustfields immediately after crossing the Cambodian border. Walking the streets of Phnom Penh, I couldn’t help but notice that everything looked and felt a bit, well, behind. In a city of more than 2 million people there was scant development and no tall buildings (though cranes and scaffolding signify a recent influx of foreign capital). I’d seen The Killing Fields and Enemies of the People and knew Pol Pot’s name as a mass-murdering, communist megalomaniac. I knew the country had experienced unspeakable acts on an unimaginable scale.
But after literally walking across human bones at the actual Killing Fields at Choueng Ek, and after standing in one of the many bloodstained cells at the former S-21 prison (about which Panh has also made a powerful documentary), I finally came to terms with the scale of the destruction of Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot’s regime, which went far beyond the mass killings of some two million people. Unbelievably, it was worse than “just” genocide. It was the eradication of anything and everything that represented a civilized society.
As The Missing Picture illustrates in unsettling ways, with clay figurines often juxtaposed over archival footage, the horror began on that fateful April day with the forced evacuation of the country’s entire urban population—intellectuals, capitalists, and social elite among them—to rural labor camps. Families were separated (Panh successfully stayed with his parents but lost his brother) and mass executions in the dark of night became commonplace, often by slashing throats as if in a macabre disassembly line. For those who were kept alive, individual identities were stripped away, black garments were issued as a standard uniform, private property was deemed null and void, and all personal possessions were confiscated and destroyed.
Educators, and those who were educated, hid their literacy lest they be immediately killed. Currency was abolished and most of the basic elements of civil society—trade, media, language, healthcare, music, art, organized religion—were banned and, if possible, destroyed. Museums, temples, banks, hospitals, and schools were razed. Officially Year Zero, it was the beginning of a reengineered, purified, classless, agrarian peasant society. Cambodia officially became Democratic Kampuchea, and Pol Pot successfully flaunted this egalitarian utopia to the world until 1979, delivering boastful speeches and fantastical propaganda that would make Kim Jong-Il jealous. (It also must be acknowledged that the U.S. involvement in Vietnam and carpet bombing in Cambodia paved the way for Pol Pot to assume power).
The Missing Picture recreates the lost images from Cambodia’s lost years in eerie fashion, and reveals the genius of Panh’s method in the process. The use of clay figurines to depict such horrors is at first a bit jarring, like a joke made in bad taste. Gradually, though, it becomes clear that the disturbing dioramas and their accompanying sound effects are critical to enabling viewers to access the emotional trauma without being subjected to seeing the physical trauma. Unlike footage and photos from Auschwitz and Dachau, there is no visual evidence of what happened before and during the Khmer Rouge (aside from its own propaganda), so there are no grotesque scenes of executions, mass graves, torture and death—which is not to say they can’t be easily imagined, similar to the stomach-churning confessions in Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of a Killing.
The bittersweet irony of The Missing Picture is that the scenes of happiness and joy are the hardest to watch. Brief clips of cosmopolitan pre-Khmer Rouge Phnom Penh, and Panh’s clay-rendered recollections of his happy childhood, are stinging reminders of what might have been, of the lives and the vibrant arts, culture, and economy that were flourishing before being completely wiped out in a matter of years. Despite its mournful tone, however, The Missing Picture is an uplifting and life-affirming ode to the human spirit, a tribute to the promising potential of Cambodia’s new generation, and a testament to the versatile power of film as a visual medium.
“This is the picture I now hand over to you,” Panh profoundly announces in the final scene. With The Missing Picture he has provided the people of his country with a timeless reflection of their darkest days, and done so with a pent-up generation’s worth of brilliant artistry and creative vitality. Pol Pot is no doubt turning over in his grave.