The Missing Picture (French: L’image manquante), 2013.
Directed by Pithy Panh.
Pol Pot’s reign of terror revisited through the eyes of a survivor.
Rithy Panh’s incredibly moving story of life under the Khmer Rouge starts with the premise of a missing photo. It is a picture that does not exist, an image that details the horrific murders perpetrated by the regime during their four-year tyranny.
Panh chooses to tell his story through the use of some old documentary footage, much of it propaganda filmed by the ruling party, and clay figures representing the characters in this horrific tale. Initially, the idea of seeing these miniature figures for 95 minutes might seem daunting or dull. Instead, they assume an emotive resonance, their minutely carved faces and bodies carrying an evocative clout. This is thanks to the detail of the scenes created and to the voiceover (Randal Douc) recounting Panh’s happy childhood and family life before the ill-fated 17 April 1975, when the revolutionary troops swept into Phnom Penh, leading to over two million people abandoning their homes to make the long march from the capital towards an uncertain and fearful future. This future meant the elimination of anything created under capitalism, including cars and medicines, leading to a return to ancient methods and customs.
Panh has managed to retain his sense of humour, showing an American car being used as part of an irrigation system, stating that even western cars had to undergo reeducation. Yet the reeducation and eradication of whole swathes of society is dealt with at length and there is certainly no place for joking here. Whilst it is easy to point all the blame at Pol Pot and his party members, Panh also points to the West’s culpability and to the 500,000 tonnes of US bombs dropped in Cambodia, which in turn led to the peasants’ revolt and support of their revolutionary leaders. He also makes it clear that the slave conditions and near starvation of the underbelly of contemporary Cambodian society bears more than a passing resemblance to scenes witnessed in the nightmare years of 1975-1979.
However, whilst to compare the Khmer Rouge to the ills of today’s society is noble, with Panh trying to create some moral balance in his film and show the reasons behind the Khmer Rouge’s gaining of power, his own accounts of life in the camp are hardly comparable to the malaise of capitalism. He talks of the starvation technique as a way of enforcing obedience, of the brainwashing of children, prepared to denounce their parents for minor misdemeanours that lead to their deaths, and of the annihilation of a people.
This is a powerful and haunting documentary, perhaps a little long. But Panh has made this film in order to unload a burden of truth and share it with his audience. It is a fitting tribute to those who did not survive to tell their tale and a chilling reminder of Cambodia’s not so distant past.
Flickering Myth Rating: Film ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie ★ ★ ★
Jo Ann Titmarsh