Mr East Goes To The Movies 2014: The Missing Picture

by George_East on January 25, 2014

Those of you who have paid attention to the end of year critics’ best films of 2013 lists, will have noticed that Joshua Oppenheimer’s Act of Killing has been there or thereabouts in most lists (mine will follow at the end of February to coincide with the Oscars).   It is a documentary of extraordinary power which is also more than a little problematic in its concept: the re-enacting by various participants in the Indonesian genocide of the 1965-6 (during which more than 1 million people died) of some of the atrocities in which they participated in the style of western Hollywood movies.   I saw it just before Christmas and still haven’t really figured out what I think about it.

However, it is not the only feature documentary to have been released in recent months dealing with historic genocides.  The Khymer Rouge in their brief period of rule in Cambodia (between 1975-1979) were responsible for the deaths of 2-2.5 million people, both through mass execution and starvation.    Given that the population of Cambodia in 1975 was around 7 million people, this represents about a third of the country’s population.

The Khymer Rouge had an anti-urban, anti-intellectual ideology that resulted in the emptying of the capital Phnom Penh in the days after it took control and the purging, torture and execution of any Cambodian who had any education – even wearing spectacles could be a basis for a death sentence.  The regime also targeted ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese citizens of Camodia – Khymer purity was sought as well as class purity.

Rithy Panh, was a middle class teenager when the Pol Pot’s victorious troops entered Phnom Pehn; the son of two teachers.  In The Missing Picture Panh revisits his experience under the Khymer Rouge as his happy and settled life in the capital is turned upside down and he is forced to work in labour camps on starvation rations.

Through voiceover and archive photos and video Panh takes back to that time.  However it is use of extraordinary hand-modelled clay figures for the reenactment of his experiences Panh depicts the death of his parents, the executions of fellow camp members for stealing food, political indoctrination in the camps and children denouncing their parents for thought crimes.

In a regime as all controlling as that run by Brother Number 1, there is, of course, hardly any actual footage of the reality of the regime.  The official photographs and film released showed happy and well-fed peasants in the fields creating the new utopia.    It is this reason, the missing  pictures, that has meant that Panh to tell his story, in the personal way he wants to do, requires another means – the clay figures provide this.  They are carved and painted recognisably – we see his family members grow visibly older and more gaunt as the days of the regime turn into months and years.  In contrast there are ‘flash back’ scenes of the models in Phnom Penh before the revolution, at family barbecues enjoying music and life.  It is an incredibly powerful and moving means of exploring the events of Panh’s life and country.    It also plays into a Khymer craft tradition that roots the film and its story firmly in the culture of this small South East Asian Buddhist country.

There is one piece of archive film which does show the near starving peasants working in the field.   We are told by voice over that the footage was found in rotting cans after the regime fell.   We are also told that the director of this footage, who had at one time been close to Pol Pot and who made propaganda films , was executed by the regime (who knows whether there was a connection between the two things).

The full-on craziness of the Year Zero ideology his illustrated by its complete rejection not only of capitalist economics (the central bank is literally blown up and money abolished), but also its rejection of all products of the west, including western technology (like cars) and western medicine.   This is as much a reversion to a mythical rural peasant Buddhist past as it is a Marxist revolution.     This is contrasted by Panh with references to French students who were embracing Pol Pot (as they had with Mao before him) from the comfort of their idealistic Parisian lives.

The Missing Picture is a superb piece of personal and political documentary film making.  Panh is reflective rather than bitter about what happened to him and his family – an emotional place that it hard to imagine getting even after 40 years.   However by telling his story and that of Cambodia in this way, the case against false utopias could not be made clearer.


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