Many recent documentaries have explored sites of genocide with a view to reclaiming a lost truth about those events shrouded by time, state propaganda and cover-ups. Patricio Guzmán represented this search into the past through the search of those who survived the Pinochet regime in Chile for the remains of their murdered relatives in Nostalgia For The Light. Joshua Oppenheimer’s acclaimed documentary The Act of Killing gave members of General Suharto’s death squads the opportunity to recreate their crimes on film with full disclosure and full impunity. Now, Rithy Panh, who has made a career out of documenting the crimes of the Khmer Rouge, is attempting to recreate both his own memories and those photographs either destroyed or never taken using a mix of clay figurines and archive footage in The Missing Picture.
The Missing Picture is both an essay film and an investigative documentary that tries to uncover the true stories of the Khmer Rouge’s reign over Cambodia. ‘The missing picture’ of the title is a term that is used to refer to a series of different images – either those in one’s head as in memories or stories one has heard, images of forced labour, starvation and genocide that were never taken, images that were suppressed or destroyed by censorship and by time. It may also refer to those images that do remain but which show untruths, such as those from Khmer Rouge propaganda films showing happy workers tilling the fields. By using clay figurines, Rithy Panh is able to recreate certain scenes that did occur but were never photographed, hence revealing a truth about the Khmer Rouge regime that had been suppressed and hidden.
The film begins with images of old film reels, representing the toll that time takes on the attempt to readdress the past. The reels are badly damaged and often unusable and suggest the inability to revisit the past due to diminishing means. As the evidence slowly erodes, Panh’s job is more important than ever and his own memories may be the last route into the past available to him. The clay figurines were, hence, conceived as a way of defying the loss of primary evidence. They recreate scenes that Panh himself witnessed, making the film his most intensely personal, particularly when Panh recreates the deaths of his parents and siblings. The narration, though not by Panh himself, is clearly performed by a stand-in for him, since it is given in the first person. However, the narration is not entirely that of Panh’s story, but of Cambodia’s story under the Khmer Rouge. It details events that Panh himself did not witness and is often broadly historical, though it always returned to the first person after it has set the scene.
Problematically, however, the narration ruminates on time and memory in the vein of certain artistic essay films. It is full of speeches about the old man seeking the memories of his past or, perhaps, the memories of his past seeking the old man. This gives the film a slightly unnecessary, somewhat irritating philosophical tone, which is at odds with the much more concrete retellings of past events. Such Proustian musings can be interesting in themselves but they feel oddly out of place in a film that has got so many more important issues at stake. To talk about the rush of memories in the same breath as starvation and state terror is an odd mix, as is, to a degree, the bald, dispassionate retelling of the objective history frequently played alongside the subjective stories of life in a Khmer Rouge re-education camp. There is a lot of talk about the fact that the bodies disappearing into the earth in the mass graves are, in a sense, returning from the earth through the clay, which is fine as an idea in a film more about art but a little too pat in a film of such seriousness and importance. It is not that one is more unworthy of examination than the other but that the constant shifts between these modes makes the film seem somewhat lacking in any one purpose or perspective.
As well as this, it becomes increasingly clear that, as thematically interesting as it is to recreate the lost past with clay figurines, the film is lacking visually. Though inevitable since it is a film about the loss of pictures, the clay figurines are not particularly cinematic and they are a little repetitive. Though it does feel unhelpful to criticise the film in this light, the fact remains that the clay figurines were possibly the wrong medium for the message, since they are quite inexpressive and distancing. Other forms of animation may have been more helpful – Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir is a good example of a film that attempts to recreate memories of the past without the help of primary sources. Rithy Panh sees the recreation of his memories as an act of defiance and he states that cinema is a powerfully effective political medium, though his choice of animation is fairly limited, an experiment in cinematic representation which just didn’t work.
Late in the film, Rithy Panh offers an account of pre-Khmer Rouge Cambodia, a darker and more complex take on the country’s past than the previous images of markets and parties. Here, Panh seems to be readdressing his own memories of before 17 April 1975, the day Phnom Penh fell to the communists, which were, admittedly, somewhat naïve and middle-class. In a potted history, he tells of how the working classes had a legitimate cause for unrest, especially after the USA dropped half a million tons of bombs on the country. The Khmer Rouge exploited this ill feeling for their own gain. Today, as Rithy Panh very quickly shows, the working class are still poor. He shows some brief footage of a worker cutting away at the ground on the side of a busy road, images reminiscent of both the false propaganda of Khmer Rouge and of his own clay figurines at work. As a result, the film has its own ‘missing pictures’ since it is a personal telling from a middle-class perspective. Rithy Panh does address the fact that his memories are tailored by his background, suggesting that there are many ‘missing pictures’ that he himself cannot recreate, but it does give an uncomfortable sense that Panh is falling on memory as a means to avoid the complexities of history. As a result, The Missing Picture may be a cathartic and worthwhile attempt to reveal the evil of the Khmer Rouge and to bring lost memories back to the surface but, like The Act of Killing, it has a very blinkered view and it avoids or only superficially touches on other uncomfortable and complex truths.
The Missing Picture should be understood best as one in a number of possible truth-seeking projects, made by a number of different people with a number of different backgrounds and experiences. Rithy Panh may have devoted his life to uncovering the evil of the Khmer Rouge, but this new film remains too subjective, too happy to be but a part of the whole. It is only one step of an important, necessary process, one that ought to be open to as many stories as exist, as many as can be found. As sincere and harrowing as The Missing Picture is, it is too intellectual and too limited to do full justice to its title and its themes.