THE MISSING PICTURE
Cambodia, France 2013
Directed by Rithy Panh
Running time: 92 minutes
There is a certain widely held misconception about the nature and usefulness of poetry: that it belongs primarily to the overrefined, the froufrou, and that trivial lot whose cotton candied hands haven’t seen a hard day’s work. The lie is a convenient one; it excuses its perpetrators from engaging with the modes of representation that chisel their very reality – as if there were only one true social order: the one that exists right now, and, as they might tell you, has always existed. If the lie were localized, locked up in the recesses of some poor psyche, perhaps it would be an excusable one. But to underrate the role of poetic representation is always to ensconce the status-quo. The lie preserves those articles that are convenient to the efficient functioning of our social edifice and elides those which are not. It both creates the conditions for and exists because of missing images. It’s a conspicuous absence, like the topside of Bernoulli’s wing, keeping this insidious glider aloft.
Rithy Panh’s Best Foreign Language Film contender, The Missing Picture illuminates the potent nature of poetic images in structuring society, subjectivity, and ostensible revolution. Panh’s handcarved dioramas constitute an attempt to evacuate the horrifying images of life under the Khmer Rouge from his mind. Panh’s tableaux are peopled by bespoke clay figures – rough-hewn, fired, and enameled. Their forms cycle from vivacious to cadaverous with a caprice that escorts the selective memory, frothing in trauma’s wake. The narrator reveals the way his memories have bracketed his self-image into place. “I wish to be rid of this picture,” he says, “so I show this to you.”
If memory is bound to be selective, then Panh’s narrator has taken it upon himself to do the selecting. The filmmakers hands enter the frame and we see them etching, shaving, and painting these hunks of clay – the stuff of figment and flesh. When face and form have been carved away and acrylic clothing has been applied, only the finishing touch of life remains: a fountain pen, the blackest of ink droplets leaking from its nib, colors the left eye, then the right. Do these figurines see what’s around them? Will they be haunted by the same memories as their creator, or will the murky solution that coats their eyes be their salvation?
Perhaps injustice needs a missing image to proceed. During times of revolution, it’s the images of the revolution’s failure to deliver on its promises that go missing. During times when the market is predominant, the missing image is the hard-suffering of the overlooked proletariat. What is constant, though, is the power of the image to remind us of what is and what can be. If we share these images with each other, perhaps only then will they cease to haunt our reality.
“Your film is not just any documentary, but a special kind that is my favorite: an essay film. As an essay filmmaker, you don’t just tell us a story by showing us images. You also make us reflect on the way you are telling and showing. This is important because the only surviving images of your past are the propaganda movies made by the Khmer Rouge, which only tell their version of what happened. Your images challenge their images, but they also question the power of any image to tell the truth.”
~~ Kevin B. Lee, Keyframe
“Panh’s burnt clay theatre meshes perfectly with the justified pathos distinguishing the narration, while—intensified by complex negotiations with the historical film material—he proposes a miraculous method to represent the unrepresentable.”
~~ Christoph Huber, Cinema Scope
“A profoundly personal meditation on a culture devastated and terminally affected by near-unimaginable cruelty and violence, the film confronts both the absence of official historical images and the inevitable subjectivity of remembered experience by deploying a mix of narration, archive footage, music, photos and recreation using tiny carved models. The result is moving and remarkably resonant.”
~~ Geoff Andrew, Sight & Sound
“Panh is not just telling his story and making a picture to go along with it. He has found a way to channel affect, to make his tale of history-gone-wrong resonate for a viewer who, we can assume, is all too familiar with conventional cinematic reenactment. Instead, we observe a filmmaker employing the most primitive of means to achieve a higher level of empathy, as well as an ethics of singularity. We are all unique, after all, which is what the Khmer Rouge chose not to see.”
~~ Michael Sicinski, The Academic Hack
“[Panh’s] latest, an unshakable testament to the power of memory, re-creates the period in the unsettling form of kid-friendly dioramas, peopled with clay figures of black-shirted prisoners and sad farm animals. The conceit is tremendously daring, but one with a huge payoff, suggesting an evil that can’t be fully processed by young eyes.”
~~ Joshua Rothlopf, Time Out New York
“This absence of visual documentation [of the Khmer Rouge killings] is the “missing picture” of the title—a void Panh seeks to fill with his carefully, skillfully framed tableaux. Far from a distancing device, these snapshots of suffering somehow feel more vivid, more real, than the grainy celluloid material. They suggest raw memories molded into physical form, history brought alive one evocative still image at a time.”
~~ A.A. Dowd, The A.V. Club
“This kind of restaging of the past is in many ways antithetical to the reenacted scenes of murder as directed by the executioners in Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, and not only for the differences in the historical specificities of Cambodia from 1975–79, and Indonesia from 1965–66. Where Oppenheimer, in his concern for the psychological justifications for murder enabled by power, dwells on the horrifying creativity of the perpetrators, Panh addresses the annihilating force of genocide.”
~~ Genevieve Yue, The Brooklyn Rail