'The Missing Picture' takes chances to more fully tell a story of genocide

Review: With the experimental film 'The Missing Picture,' Cambodian director Rithy Panh answers the question: How do you tell the story of the dead when they leave us without a trace?

The Khmer Rouge regime killed nearly 2 million people while in power in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. It targeted those who had affiliations with the former government, professionals, intellectuals and ethnic minorities. This period of genocide came to be known as the era of the Killing Fields, as the Khmer Rouge sent their victims to be “reeducated” in the fields, with the primary means of reeducation being torture and execution.

In their attempt to create a new communist state, those in the regime wiped out groups of people. They destroyed their homes and belongings. They tried to erase all traces of their lives.

In The Missing Picture, which screened at the Syracuse University Human Rights Film Festival last Saturday, director Rithy Panh is intent on proving that the Khmer Rouge could take everything from their victims — they could even take their lives — but as long as people lived, the regime could never take their memory. Preserving that memory is the ultimate weapon of resistance against oppression and genocide.

The Missing Picture is Panh’s physical offering to the memory of those who the Khmer Rouge murdered during the genocide. His film revisits the history of the Killing Fields; it tells the story of his childhood disrupted. Above all, it reveals the cruelty and human rights violations that characterized the reign of the Khmer Rouge. The film remembers all those who were murdered — it honors their lives.

Panh explains how the Khmer Rouge destroyed families’ pictures and film, leaving only government-sanctioned propaganda in their place. With this destruction of film and photographs — which serve as physical memory — Panh was in a predicament in attempting to create a memoir documentary: There was no footage that explicitly captured the horrors of the Khmer Rouge. There were only films of laborers in the field, intimidated into feigned content by their oppressive overseers.

His ingenious solution was to have small figures made of clay created to substitute for the people whose stories he tells. Often, as people are introduced in the narrative, footage is shown of their creation through the carving of clay and detailed painting. As the movie moves and Panh describes the passing of months and then years in the Killing Fields, the figures physically transform. Their eyes become sunken; their rib cages visibly protrude.

Panh further designed several intricately detailed sets to recreate both Phnom Penh and the Killing Fields. He narrates over the audio of Khmer Rouge propaganda footage, weaving it into his own narrative, to reveal the suffering that it was created to disguise.

A French voiceover tells Panh’s story. The words are poetic and rhythmically flow, sparing no detail of human emotion. His word choice and narrative delivery in no way diminishes, but rather enhances, the representations of cruelty and suffering that happened in the Killing Fields.

Panh’s real magic as filmmaker is in the humanity that emanates from these inanimate figures. As the film progresses, you forget you are staring at clay figures the size of one knuckle; you forget you are reading subtitles. You imagine the sedentary figures are moving; you fantasize about their interactions with one another. Like a child being read a story, the extended, poetic narrative is understood as inter-character dialogue.

The film opens with a shot of two hands discovering old reels of film amid a wrecked, decaying home. The reel is rusted and rotting, and sections break off as the hand unwinds the film. The film jumps to a scene of waves crashing against the camera. A voiceover says, “In the middle of life, childhood returns, sweet and bitter in its images.”

Panh opens his mind to the audience, and you cannot help but fall in; you are transported to his childhood memories. In a day and age where gratuitous violence and shock value dominate cinema, Panh shuns these techniques and tells his own story — full of human horrors — with his beautifully simple words and inanimate clay figures. Despite all the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, and all of the losses he suffered, Panh’s film is not a story of terror or hatred; it is a tribute to those he loved. It is a story of human resilience.

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