A testimony to the horrors of the Khmer Rouge in clay, Rithy Panh’s The Missing Picture is a poetic and intelligent rumination on survival, memory and murder.
Earth by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Like Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act Of Killing in which members of an Indonesian death squad reenact their murders, or even George Sluizer’s Dark Blood, unfinished due to the untimely death of River Phoenix and completed by the director reading dialogue from the script, Rithy Panh’s The Missing Picture is the recreation of missing images – in this case, the Khmer Rouge’s cultural revolution, as it pieces together the reeducation and starvation of millions out of archive footage from Pol Pot’s regime and his own story recreated in tableaux of clay models. Working for years on labour camps digging the earth, reshaping Kampuchea’s soil in the name of their revolutionary leaders, it’s a poignant medium to capture a story that has to be told. And underscored with a soundtrack of laughter and singing that gives way to bombs and spades scratching soil, The Missing Picture is Rithy Panh’s quest to redress the balance of history, remember the fallen and bear witness to the past.
His quest starts out in search of an image – a photo of an execution that has survived the pogrom of destruction of records, incontrovertible proof of a victim killed at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. It’s an image that has escaped celluloid, but as Panh’s narration concludes, it nevertheless exists because it exists in him. So too, through his dioramas of clay figures, Rithy Panh is able to conjure back to life his mother and father (to whom the film is dedicated), as well as his lost brothers, sisters and cousins, creating a tribute to their memory in clay. But there’s a poetic justice to Panh’s storytelling too, as he takes revenge over Pol Pot’s regime by exchanging his dyed black rags for a pink polka-dot t-shirt, or recreating his mother’s verbal act of resistance – reimagining in images his father’s funeral with the due respect it deserves and the white garments of mourning.
Like the rusty cinema reels left behind by the Khmer Rouge, from which Panh is able to conjure blurred images of the past – a Cambodian dancer or Phnom Penh’s Sixties disco scene, The Missing Picture polemicises the importance of the fleeting image. Just as the black and white portraits of the prisoners in S21 bear witness to their existence, so too does Rithy Panh insist that to see an image is to own it, and to therefore render it not-missing, inside us. And so, by recreating the horrors of Pol Pot’s regime, The Missing Picture creates the image of the Khmer Rouge – a greyscale world where colour, laughter, song and dance have disappeared, replaced by the Earth’s damned – starving (as one ration of rice is divided amongst 25) and dehumanised (eating forbidden rats, roots and insects). The revolution with its promises of abolishing class divisions exists only in the Khmer Rouge films, which like Dovzhenko’s Earth depict a plentiful grain harvest and smiling faces, even if the sloganeering can’t quite hide the frailty and hunger of Cambodia’s children as they dig the earth.
Thirty years on and guilt still remains amongst survivors like Panh – batting off accusations that they accepted their fate with buddhist resignation with the chastening response, “How do you revolt with a spoon as your sole possession?” Panh acknowledges The Missing Picture as a cry from the psychiatrist’s couch, talking and creating images as therapy, expiating his regrets by releasing them in pictures. Could he have done more to help his fellow starving man? Like the girl who was so hungry she started eating salt or the 9-year-old who denounced his mother for picking mangoes? And while from these mute lumps of clay, we neither hear a ‘No’ nor see a smile, Panh assures us of these human acts of free will and resistance. Like his father’s decision to no longer eat animal feed and die or the many who resisted in silence – a gesture of no. For sometimes a silence is a scream. And it’s a surprisingly moving method, as Panh allows us to feel their dumb hunger, their silent fear and mistrust.
As Rithy Panh interrogates his past, The Missing Picture is a testimony to his survival, and just as the happy pictures of his childhood are not missing, for they exist in him, no longer are the horrors of Pol Pot’s regime missing. For there are no other memorials to bear witness to the violence and brutality, only an artificial lake of buried corpses now salty and green that no-one drinks from. For the victims, justice is still to be done, such as the village chief who terrorised his villagers who was never arrested, or the poor who still to this day dig the same earth. Rithy Panh never finds his missing picture, but by creating images of his own, The Missing Picture creates its own incontrovertible truth with man in his own image. A testimony in clay that builds the foundations for a Cambodia from which Panh’s missing picture just might one day find its way out.
The Missing Picture is released on 3rd January 2013 in the UK