At last year’s New York Asian Film Festival I saw a documentary called Golden Slumbers, which focused on the lost cinema of Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge had destroyed cinema houses and film negatives throughout the country, wiping out an entire cultural history in their criminal attempt to remake the country as a communist utopia. While I had issues with that film and the way it approached it’s subject matter, I think that Golden Slumbers gave me a fascinating entry point into Rithy Panh’s documentary The Missing Picture.
Both films are about trying to discuss something that isn’t there. While it was Cambodian cinema in Golden Slumbers, in The Missing Picture it’s the past realities obscured by the Khmer Rouge. Pahn attempts to find the truth of what happened during Pol Pot’s regime through spoken text and clay figurines and through film — since reality isn’t available, art will have to suffice and supplant.
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The Missing Picture (L’image manquante)
Director: Rithy Panh
Country: Cambodia / France
Release Date: TBD
The experience of history can take many different forms. There’s the official narrative that’s accepted and promulgated by the powers that be, there’s a cultural memory (a sort of memory of the people, for lack of a better term) that may run parallel or contrary to the official narrative, and there’s memory/personal narrative. There’s more than just these three threads, but you get the idea. These all knot and intertwine and create this difficult braid that’s constantly making and reconfiguring itself. In the case of Cambodia during the time of the Khmer Rouge, the history of the country was all rooted in propaganda intended to forward the official narrative. Cultural memory and personal narrative could not be shared since it was in the state’s best interest to create an image of an ideal world even if the situation was actually anything but.
Panh attempts to look at actual lived history — his own youth and what others experienced — by means of art since the only official pictures that exist are from the Khmer Rouge. So many other photos are burned or destroyed. Panh uses hand-crafted clay figurines situated in dioramas in order to recreate moments he and others endured. There was labor and mass murder and illness and famine. What’s missing in the official narrative is all the actual suffering. The sound design helps evoke the moments that have been recreated as a simulacrum of an undocumented reality. Into these tableaux Panh incorporates the remains of extant photos from the era and the propaganda footage shot the Khmer Rouge. All kinds of histories are merged together as a larger way into the horrors of Cambodia’s past and what can be excavated from it.
In some ways Panh’s art is a way of unmaking the lies of the Khmer Rouge even if these are not actual images of events and merely representations from memory, testimony, and other personal narratives. Yet not only is this an act of memory, but by creating art from memory to counter the lies in the official narrative, I think Panh’s larger project of diorama, text, and film is a way of contributing to Cambodia’s cultural memory. These are stories that must be told, these are voices that were not allowed to speak; both must be heard, or at least ought to be. In trying to recreate and refashion a lost Cambodia during a time of major suffering, I think that’s also an attempt to call out to other voices to share their narratives. When the history of a country is written in propaganda, it’s up to future generations to create their own images that are more essentially true — if propaganda can be considered a kind of art, then it’s the least moral form of it.
From a formal and philosophical standpoint, I found so much of The Missing Picture fascinating just to ponder. Yet with that in mind, I did sense a bit of meandering in the film since it is so much about a wander through memory constructed by and tethered to language. This is the first of Panh’s work I’ve encountered, but apparently he’s written extensively on this subject and made many films on the matter. I guess the text in The Missing Picture is a bit Proust-like in its attempt to recreate and retrieve what is no longer present. Language is just another means of contributing to the cultural memory, adding to the multi-facted, multimedia feel of the project. If culture is to be regained, it seems necessary to use different mediums to regain it just as the Khmer Rouge used multiple means to rewrite it.
(Somewhat related: I think the dioramas, the text, the archival footage, the damaged artifacts, and the documentary itself would make for a great museum exhibition. I’d love to view each element on its own and then merged as a film. That might help the weight of history sink in more to have all the physical stuff there in front of me.)
One issue I had with the narration may come from the translation. The version I saw was the English-language one, and the monologue and the text were just all right, but maybe a bit stilted. Turns of phrase didn’t seem as poetic or as elegant as the images, which seemed to me like something got lost in the transition from French to English. The issues with text in translation are always about finding the right meaning in the right tone and the right voice. It’ll never be perfect, but sometimes different translations are better than others. I have a feeling that if I saw the French-language version of the film with English subtitles, I may have had a different experience of the film even as it did meander.
Despite these gripes, there are striking moments in The Missing Picture even if most of them involve static clay figurines. Their immobility and crude appearance almost makes the situations they’re depicting seem even more real, like caricatures caught in moments of dread. I’m reminded of those bodies in Pompeii and Herculaneum that were frozen in place by the ash of Mount Vesuvius. To represent so many people in clay makes the figures at once an individual person who may have existed as well as the idea of a people who have been murdered and are unable to speak for themselves. Maybe the most haunting thing about The Missing Picture is that the clay that Panh used to craft his figures may be comprised of countless missing generations.