The Missing Picture (L’image manquante)
Directed by Rithy Panh
How long will we remember the Boston Marathon bombings? While those killed remain in our memories one year later, two million people killed by the Khmer Rouge are, less than forty years later, all but statistics.
The intention of Rithy Panh’s latest documentary on the genocide is narrated to us to be “a picture that never ceases to seek us out.” Panh was compelled to create this picture because it is missing. He has searched, he says. No footage exists of the Khmer Rouge’s murders.
So Panh recollects his childhood, first in Phnom Penh, and then at labor camps in the countryside. His family is relocated as part of Pol Pot’s own Great Leap Forward. There he watches as his family dies — his father, mother, brothers, and sisters, killed one by one by hunger. Panh is charged with rolling corpses into mass graves. He is thirteen.
Amongst the multitudes, deindividuated in black, only a handful of figures stand out in the story: teenage Panh is garbed in a rose and polka-dot T-shirt, his father in a white suit, their savage chief in a felt hat. The paucity of characters is one of the film’s faults. Ask of concentration camps and we can recite atrocities — gassings, torture, starvation. Paint a victim’s face — Szpilman, Wiesel, Frank — and we will weep.
It does not help that the film ignores the subtleties of human movement and the human face. Its most distinctive artistic choice is to portray its people with small, stationary, painted clay figures who inhabit elaborate clay dioramas. Critics have effusively praised the relative non-effect this has had on the film’s emotion. Yet the archival images — of children dancing in the rain, of a woman beating her belly, too malnourished to go into labor — are some of the strongest.
At a minimum, on the precautionary principle, the clay detracts — convenience often does not go unpunished in art, as in life. And there is more to be said of the artistic execution. The film is often monotonous rather than unyielding, the narration constant and slow. Nearly every depraved moment is smothered with ominous harmonics, nearly ever despairing one spooned out thick by a mournful cello. That Panh does not include more graphic images is also part of a questionable trend in war documentaries of approaching carnage obliquely.
But for such quibbles to obstruct one’s engagement with the human suffering would merely be a symptom of the disease of apathy Panh illuminates. And there is indeed apathy.
Last Thursday marked the thirty-ninth anniversary of Pol Pot’s regime. Only one leader of the Khmer Rouge (recently, at that) has yet been successfully convicted of crimes. Cambodia is still a dictatorship, still ruled by former Khmer Rouge. And yet the people keep silent. Even with The Missing Picture, I fear it will be decades before the natural process of revolution begins.
Panh has made over ten films now on his country’s scar; it is his imperative. As he tells us, “There are many things that man should not see or know. Should he see them, he’d be better off dying. But should any of us see or know these things, then you must live to tell of them.”
The Missing Picture is both his most lauded and his most personal film, not by chance. Panh tells us it was provoked by a mid-life existential crisis, a term that has rarely been more portentous. Why did he survive? He feels guilt for not helping the destitute, his family, as they starved. He could have fished, he could have fought. We know this is not true. He knows this is not true, and yet he cannot know this. “It is not a picture of loved ones I seek. I want to touch them. And my childhood returns.” But his childhood is two-faced.
Not often do we accept a film that declares itself so explicitly, but we do when it is done in The Missing Picture. The film is humble, the compulsion of a filmmaker who has only now chosen to speak of his own experience. We are convinced that the aspiration to be remembered speaks not to the film but its subjects, and to that end, we acquiesce.
Let the lost never cease to seek us out.