The Missing Picture
by M. Faust
Although he has spent 25 years chronicling the lives of his fellow Cambodians post-Khmer Rouge, filmmaker Rithy Panh has largely avoided focusing on the four years from 1975 to 1979. That was when the Khmer Rouge held control over Cambodia, causing the deaths, either through execution or starvation, of 20 percent of the country’s population. A boy of 13 when they took over the government and herded populations out of cites to become farm workers, Panh witnessed the deaths of everyone in his family before escaping the country and settling in Paris.
Panh knows that modern history lives in images, but few images exist of the Khmer Rouge’s genocide. Recreating them, he knew, ran the risk of being either too horrific to view or becoming a commoditized spectacle to be enjoyed and forgotten. And how could any one film encompass such an enormous event, the deaths of more than two million people?
For The Missing Picture, which won the top prize of the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, Panh dealt only with his personal experiences, with a subjective narration that doesn’t pretend to take in all of Cambodia’s sad history.
Most audaciously, his visualizes his story with clay figures, carved and painted by artist Sarith Mang. This immobile dolls at first seem inert, like drawings in a children’s book arranged in dioramas representing Phnom Penh and the rural camps. But as the film proceeds they gain enormous power as stand-ins for images that would be too painful to look at directly.
Panh’s narration can ramble, and his story will probably send you to look up more information about the larger story of which he was part. That’s not a bad thing. He uses clips from Khmer Rouge propaganda films that look more like something from the dawn of film than anything made 40 years ago, and the footage becomes a metaphor for the way that unpleasant memories fade into the past. As he said in an interview with the New York Times, “I’m all in favor of forgetting. If you’re able to forget, then so much the better. But you can only forget once you’ve dealt with the past, you can only move on once you have transcribed it. So this is what I’m seeking to do, get it down so we can get over this.”
The Missing Picture will be presented at the University of Buffalo screening room (112 Center for the Arts) on Tuesday, April 22 at 5pm. Sponsoring groups are the Center for Global Media, UB Asian Studies Program and Department of History. It will be followed on Thursday by an international symposium, “The Rwandan Genocide: Twenty Years Later,” 8:30am-5pm in 120 Clemens Hall. Both events are free and open to the public.
Watch the trailer for The Missing Picture
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