Portrait in Negative

Rithy Panh’s Khmer Rouge documentary, a prize winner at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, is released today, and reviewed by Niall Anderson.

Missing Picture

Rithy Panh was four when the Khmer Rouge began its guerrilla war against the Cambodian government and nine when the battle finally reached Phnom Penh. The capital had been in chaos for much of the previous year – natives had fled, supply lines had been cut, and the place was filled with as many as a million refugees from the surrounding countryside. The Khmer Rouge took the city in a day: evacuating the entire population into forced labour camps, killing those who couldn’t or wouldn’t move. Panh’s elder brother, a musician, disappeared that night, never to be seen again. Within a year, his entire family was dead: carried off by starvation or infection.

Panh escaped to Thailand in 1979, just before the Khmer Rouge regime was destroyed. He was still only fourteen. He moved through various refugee camps in several countries before finding himself in Paris, where he became interested in filmmaking. He has made a number of documentaries about the Khmer Rouge since 1989, the most famous of which, 2003’s S-21, is a frank, straightforward and deliberately undramatic reunion of torturers and tortured. That film seemed to mark a turning point in Panh’s career: there has been more fiction since, and even his documentary output has been marked by an increasing subjectivity. His latest film, The Missing Picture, feels like another turning point. The focus is on his family and his own wartime experience, and yet he turns over the narration of his story to an actor, Randal Douc, and the words themselves to a friend, Christophe Bataille. We hear Panh’s story in the first person; we see Panh himself on screen; and yet what we’re being presented with is a second- and even third-hand version of events. It’s one of the many perversities of The Missing Picture that such an evidently (and unavoidably) personal film is constantly disavowing its personal nature.

Perhaps this is as it should be. The “missing” of the film’s title are the dead. By doubly ventriloquizing himself, Panh hopes, if not to speak for them, then to speak as one of them. He – or his narrator at least – is struck by the fact that the only documentary record we have of these people is in Khmer Rouge propaganda films, where the orderly progression of thousands of people towards a single goal serves to hide the pain and suffering of each individual. ‘The only revolution is cinema,’ says the narrator at one point, seemingly oblivious to the fact that what we’re seeing on screen was supposed to be a revolution too. Panh is half-using the Khmer regime’s cinema against itself, and half-condemning himself for using it. The Missing Picture is, morally, a very uneasy film.

And an uneven one too. Its strongest parts come when the personal narrative meshes easily with the historical one, but there are several points when the timeline jumps to make a rhetorical point and has to recover itself sharply. Some of its wider historical judgements are also a little suspect. Panh is within his rights to remember pre-war Phnom Penh as a loud multicultural paradise – but if his hindsight allows him to acknowledge the multiculturalism, it surely obliges him to acknowledge that this version of Phnom Penh was destroyed long before the Khmer Rouge actually attacked. Likewise the tossed-off assertion that American carpet-bombing of Cambodia in the late 60s and early 70s acted to galvanise the poor in favour of the Khmer Rouge. This is an arguable point, and as such deserves to be argued, rather than hurried past.

But the major perversity of The Missing Picture is not its argument so much as its visual style – specifically how it chooses to represent “the missing”. Panh does not want to reconstruct his childhood realistically; he doesn’t want to stage reconstructions of the hundreds of deaths he witnessed. So instead he builds small, static clay figurines that stand in for the family he lost, and the many dozens more he buried. There is a lovely sombre poetry to the idea of using Cambodian soil to reincarnate those whose blood was spilled into it, but in practice it’s a little bit like watching the Battle of Stalingrad restaged in Lego. The childlike presentation brings home Panh’s extreme youth when all this was happening, but it also distracts from the real horror of the situation.

Then again, how do you get your head around the Khmer genocide? Pol Pot’s dreams of a completely agrarian, completely self-sufficient country – and the means he deployed to enforce it – make Stalin look unambitious, and even kindly. Stalin was at least amenable to factories, roads, cities and modern medicine. Pol Pot destroyed or outlawed them all. When flooding devastated the rice crop of 1976, there was no infrastructure to get food to those worst affected, and no drugs to treat waterborne diseases. One in four Cambodians died over the next three years; Pol Pot could have stood for it to be more. As a Khmer Rouge motto had it: ‘To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you no loss.’ The Missing Picture is Rithy Panh’s direct engagement with the scale of that loss. At the end of the film, his narrator resignedly says: ‘I don’t want these memories any more, so I give them to you.’ The task he leaves the audience is the one he has just completed: to reconstruct an absence.

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