In 1975, the Cambodian government fell to the army of the Khmer Rouge, the Communist movement led by Pol Pot. The Khmer Rouge believed that all remnants of urban life must be destroyed, and to that end they forced the people of Phnom Penh and other cities to evacuate, give up all their possessions, and work in forced labor camps. Mass executions of anyone considered bourgeois or intellectual, combined with the starvation and lack of medical care in the camps, killed roughly a quarter of the population, over 2 million people, in the four years before the Khmer Rouge’s defeat by Vietnam in 1979.
These are the facts, in brief. Events so tragic and horrifying can’t really be absorbed. And there have been too few personal accounts by survivors to help us understand. But a recent documentary by Cambodian director Rithy Panh called The Missing Picture, takes a major step towards giving voice to the silent victims of this genocide. Panh was 13 years old when his family was taken away from its home in Phnom Penh to a labor camp in the dry countryside, digging for wells where there was no water, trying to fulfill impossible quotas for crop production while cadres drilled them in slogans day and night. His parents, sisters, and brothers, all died. Eventually he escaped and became a refugee, and then a filmmaker in Paris. He has made 16 films, including several fiction films, but I hadn’t heard of this brilliant and amazing artist until The Missing Picture was nominated for a Foreign Language Film Oscar last year. It played in Tucson briefly earlier this year at The Loft, but now thankfully it’s come out on DVD.
The title The Missing Picture refers to the dilemma of Panh making a film about his experience. With no visual archives to draw upon, he decided to design and help create clay figurines that would depict the people and events he remembered. When I first heard of this I thought it might be dull. I was so wrong. These meticulously carved little figures evoke, as perhaps no other method could have, the fragility of memory, and the spiritual beauty and tragedy of the human beings suffering through this time. The bright colors of the time before the change, when Panh’s childhood was happy and his family enjoyed life, contrast with the dark monochrome of the scenes in the camps. Everyone had to wear black. There were no names, only numbers. No books, entertainment, modern medicine or transportation were allowed. Your only possession was a spoon. Picking wild berries or corn to eat was considered individualism and punishable by death. People died every day, in the thousands, and their bodies were thrown into pits. The carefully posed tableaux of the figurines—these are still images, you understand, not animation—seem vividly true contrasted with the propaganda films that are the only records we have, some of which we’re shown, and which Panh, in his voice-over narration, analyzes to show how false they really are.
This is an elegy for the past, for the dead, and for humanity. Incredibly, the film is not charged with anger, although I certainly felt that emotion at times, but with a deep, poetic sorrow that expands from the filmmaker’s own plight to the feelings of all the people in his wounded country. In The Missing Picture, as it turns out, there is a picture, but it takes a quiet act of attention, an awareness of the heart, and the courage to affirm life in the face of evil, in order to see it.