Joanna Wolfarth, specialist in Cambodian art, culture and history, takes a look behind The Missing Picture.
In April 1975 the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh, ending years of bloody civil war which had played out under the shadow of the American war in Vietnam, and spilled over the borders into Cambodia. This marked the start of what was to become four years of hardship under a radical and increasingly paranoid communist regime. The Khmer Rouge sought to erase history, eradicate culture, and create a pure agrarian society. The population of the Phnom Penh, swelled by refugees from the countryside, was immediately evacuated and soon the city became a near-ghost town. People were given no time to pack. Family photographs were buried or burnt. Artists, intellectuals and other ‘enemies’ of the regime were murdered. The rest of the population was put to work in the countryside, dying in their thousands from malnutrition, disease, exhaustion, torture or execution.
The Missing Picture director Rithy Panh was there. He witnessed the unimaginable, watching as his family disappeared or died. He survived and perhaps his work since then can be regarded as the debt one pays for surviving. After a period in a refugee camp on the Thai border Panh went to Paris where he studied film. In 1990 he returned to Cambodia and began making documentary and feature films which explored his country’s past. Site 2, his first work, documented life in a giant refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border, in which displaced Cambodians lived for well over a decade. Oscar-nominated The Missing Picture tells Pahn’s own story as he tells the story of his country. The narrative is recounted via static, silent clay figurines, interspersed with archival footage, including propaganda films made by the Khmer Rouge themselves. These clay figurines in dioramas might be motionless but they are certainly not lifeless and are profoundly moving.
This film has its origins in Panh’s search for photographs of an execution which a Khmer Rouge guard had once told him about. He never uncovered images of the genocide. In any case, how can the totality of genocide ever be found in images? How do you represent the unrepresentable? Panh himself knows that truth can never be found in the image, but the film nevertheless gives impressive form to his testimony. The title of the film also refers to other ‘missing’ pictures Panh will never get to see: his parents and siblings getting old. Panh’s restaging of his memoires also allows him to visualise another missing picture: he can now see himself in the midst of the horror. In one moving scene the figure of Panh loses his regulation Khmer Rouge black pyjamas, which he replaces with a bright shirt, popular with young, rock and roll enthused Cambodians before the war. This small detail is Panh’s act of defiance which momentarily allows him to transcend the confines of the regime and grasp as sense of individuality and freedom.
Joanna Wolfarth, University of Leeds
See the Film
The Missing Picture is showing at Plymouth Arts Centre until Thursday 27 March