‘Sometimes an airplane crosses the sky,” says the narrator in Rithy Panh’s film The Missing Picture, as the camera hovers above a lone clay figurine, lying in the grass. “Is it observing us? Will it parachute a camera to me? So the world knows at last? The missing picture: That’s us.”
For decades, the award-winning director has examined characters in the shadow of the murderous Khmer Rouge – at sometimes uncomfortably close range. The perpetrators: S21: the Khmer Rouge Killing Machine and Duch, Master of the Forges of Hell; the defiant victims: Vann Nath and Bophana, or other survivors living in the aftermath of war: One Evening After the War.
Throughout his career, says Rithy Panh, he has been obsessed with finding an image that lays bare the crimes of the Khmer Rouge, either in the material proof of photographs (which he knows to exist) or as an essential quest in his filmmaking.
“The ‘missing picture’ is the thing that you are looking for, film after film. Each film you are looking for a missing picture, and after you make one, you find another,” he told the Post in May.
His new film, which took home the Un Certain Regard award at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival and is now showing at the Bophana Center, turns the camera lens on the artist himself.
His story, narrated in French (by Randal Duoc) and told through the unusual medium of clay figurines and archival footage, is based on his 2013 book The Elimination and follows his four years as a teenager in the forced labour programs of the Khmer Rouge – to which he lost his parents, siblings and their children.
The film doesn’t follow a strict chronology, but is a combination of memoir and historical record – and a more fundamental meditation on the genocide that Panh lived through.
Though the story dips back and forth into Panh’s pre-Khmer Rouge boyhood, to bring to life the intense inner world that in some ways sustained him during his years in hell, the narrative avoids incoherence.
The film begins, symbolically, with churning waves (and it concludes on a no less unsettled note) before introducing 13-year-old Panh’s clay figurine family and childhood in a colourful, banana-fringed home in Phnom Penh, where books are loved, poetry quoted by Panh’s teacher father, and Golden Era rock and roll played by Panh’s cool older brother
At first as the camera pans the miniature set where the figurines stand fixed in frozen scenes, you might wonder if the static figures will be able to convey a whole 90-minute film. Soon the narration (with English subtitles) and black and white footage of a black-and-white Phnom Penh, April 17, interrupts and in their painted expressions and stiff arms, the little hand-carved people become imbued with meaning.
As Panh’s family are evacuated to the countryside and don the dyed black garb of the Khmer Rouge, the set switches from grim labour camp scenes to the Khmer Rouge’s revolutionary fantasies of industrial rice fields surrounded by bicycle roadways and cement towers, to bizarre visions of self-feeding machines for the elderly – propaganda endlessly forced upon the workers.
“Our daily life is combat, against nature, against words,” the narrator says. The revolutionary chants and endless slogans still haunt him.
Soon starvation – the “beginning of dehumanisation” – and ceaseless labour sees the figurines grow gaunt and dull. Panh’s father, who was previously shown in a white suit, refuses to eat the food ‘not fit for humans’, and not long after dies.
Rather than witness his callous burial, Panh’s mother tells him in careful detail about the funeral he should have had.
In between harrowing scenes (depicted by what have now become a captivating cast of characters), the story moves back to normal pre-regime life. A particularly lovely image is of real colour footage of classical dancer Princess Bopha Devi, imposed on one of the film’s model sets.
Combined with the long-lived grief and anger of the older narrator, the young Panh never lets go of powerful memories like this – or his disbelief at what is happening to him and why.
Whether or not the question of the “missing picture” is meant to be resolved in the film, Panh’s unusual and moving documentary successfully draws us into his compelling question.
The Missing Picture is showing every day at the Bophana Center at 6:30pm until August 10.