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The Missing Picture

Posted by martinteller on January 21, 2015

I’ve seen three films about Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge, or rather three that are about them to a significant degree.  The first one I saw was Spalding Gray’s monologue film Swimming to Cambodia, which is still my favorite (though of the three it is the least directly concerned with Khmer Rouge).  The movie is, in part, an account of Gray’s experiences while working as an actor in The Killing Fields, and so I checked that one out next.  It was a long time after that before I encountered another film on the subject, perhaps I wasn’t looking… or perhaps because they’re so scarce.  But about 8 years ago I stumbled across a documentary called S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, about a facility where “enemies” were interrogated, tortured and executed.  It is in some ways a precursor to The Act of Killing, with former guards cheerfully reenacting their brutal past.  I found the film chilling, though I wished it had a broader scope about the KR in general.

It wasn’t until after I finished watching The Missing Picture that I realized its director, Rithy Panh, was the same person behind the S21 documentary.  And this work does indeed have a broader scope, while also being more personal.  In trying to fill in the “missing pictures” of history about the Khmer Rouge, Panh reconstructs his childhood memories using miniature clay figurines.  These reconstructions are intermixed — often in the same frame — with stock footage, much of it from the Khmer Rouge’s propaganda films, films promoting an ideology belied by the real hypocrisy.  An ideology that most accepted only out of fear and survival.  If “art is the lie that tells the truth,” the “documentary” images shot by the Khmer Rouge is the truth that tells lies.  Panh’s manufactured tableaux may not be a genuine record, but they fill in the gaps.  They provide the missing picture.

The artificiality provides a level of detachment that ironically makes the events more real.  “The lie that tells the truth”, much like the animation of Waltz with Bashir or Persepolis.  Or the surreal reenactments of The Act of Killing.  By putting a Brechtian frame around it, the storyteller not only creates an intriguing narrative device, but also evokes a sense of confession.  In this case, it’s aided by the poetic narration (co-written by Christophe Bataille).  Especially because it’s in French, it is reminiscent of the introspection seen in the documentaries of Alain Resnais and Chris Marker.  But it’s not oblique, it’s to the point.  The sobering, upsetting point… these are real losses, real hardships, real pains.  They are not well recorded, having occurred under an oppressive regime.  But Panh’s efforts to paint the missing picture are artful and captivating.  Rating: Very Good (85)

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