Director Rithy Pahn was just a young boy when in 1975, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge seized power in Cambodia. In their effort to transform Cambodia into a radical form of agrarian communism, the Khmer Rouge emptied out their cities, supposedly the sites of bourgeois capitalist values, and send urban residents to agricultural labour camps where they would reform themselves through labour. Such is the experience of Pahn’s family. His father was a teacher, and thus considered a dangerous intellectual. They were sent to the countryside where, deprived of belongings, forced to endure backbreaking labour, and denied food his family members wasted away one after another, until Pahn was alone.
It’s a tragic story regardless of how it’s told, but Pahn goes beyond simple story telling, drawing attention to the question of how such horror can really be represented. The title The Missing Picture then refers to two absences. The first refers to the lack of documentary evidence about the crimes of the Khmer Rouge. The regime made large numbers of celebratory films, showing happy and determined peasants transforming the countryside with their frenzied manual labour, or enthusiastic crowds welcoming Pol Pot and the other top leaders. What is missing from the record – the missing picture – is the systematic torture, the withholding of food for ideological purposes, and the deaths of up to 2 million people in four years. The second absence refers to the impossibility of ever having a complete story: the realization that even knowing the statistics about numbers of dead doesn’t allow comprehension of what went on. To try to fill in this missing picture, Pahn turns to art, more specifically, to carved clay figures (made by Sarith Mang). With these tiny shapes, surprisingly expressive in their emotions, Pahn tells the story that documentary footage and expert opinion cannot: his personal story of suffering and survival in barbaric times. These tiny figures are fit into elaborate dioramas of fields where people worked, the communal canteens where everyone was forced to eat, and into scenes of remembrances, when Pahn recalls the vibrancy of his life before the Khmer Rouge came, full of music and dance.
Dolls seem appropriate in this film for another reason. One of the problems that Communist regimes around the world have encountered is the messiness that human beings bring with them. Marx tells us that the proletariat will rise in the name of class interests and overthrow the bourgeoisie. But he doesn’t tell us about those members of the proletariat that might rather be doing something else that day. Communists envision a neat world of cooperation and self-sacrifice, and no doubt this an attractive vision, but generations or even millennia of learned behaviour, such as attachment to family and the extent to which people will go to protect said family cannot so easily be changed. Clay figurines can be controlled in the way that the Khmer Rouge desired to control humans. This is exemplified in the scene where a group of city dweller figurines stand in the countryside. They are static, but you get the feeling of a diverse group of people, with different clothes, belongings, and backgrounds, milling about. Pahn then cuts to the next scene where this same group of people are standing in straight lines, organised by gender and age, and then to the next where they all wear identical black clothing, and their belongings, including eyeglasses, have been taken. From disorder comes order, but with it, the loss of humanity.
Pahn mixes these clay figurines scenes in with real footage from the period, and the occasional bit of newly shot footage, including periodic images of waves crashing over you. The cumulative effect is impressive, the clay figurines an effective way of communicating the very exclusions of the propaganda footage they sit alongside. But just as the figurines represent the limits of expression in the case of such exclusions, so too is their effect at times limited. Other films on the genocide highlight the horror of the torture, the killing fields, the famine, and provoke emotions that figurines necessarily cannot. The intermixing of figurines and real footage too prevents the construction of any real sort of narrative, which makes the film feel overly long. Still, it is held together with the beautiful, poetic words that accompany the images, written by Pahn and Christophe Bataille.
The Missing Picture won the prize of ‘Un Certain Regard’ at the Cannes Film Festival, and was a worthy nominee for best Foreign Film at the 2014 Academy Awards. In the film, Pahn notes that the revolution that the Khmer Rouge promised, of agricultural abundance and social harmony, existed only in their propaganda films. Pahn’s film goes some way to represent the revolution that the Khmer Rouge actually brought.