Rithy Panh has been making films about the Khmer Rouge and the aftermath of their rule for over two decades now, but until his most recent film, The Missing Picture, won the top prize of the 2013 Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard section, I had never heard of him or any of his previous films. I suspect I am not alone in this.
I was somewhat familiar with the Khmer Rouge and the Communist Party of Kampuchea; that is, I knew that they took control of Cambodia and, in less than four years, killed between one million and three million people either directly (execution) or indirectly (starvation, famine, disease) and crippled the country to such an extent that many historians would argue that it is still in recovery. That’s all you need to know for The Missing Picture, however, which is further from a history lesson than any documentary about genocide could be expected to be but manages to provide one incidentally.
“There is no truth, there is only cinema” sounds like something that may have been written or uttered by Jean-Luc Godard at some point, but it’s actually a double entendre uttered in The Missing Picture that, in context, reckons with the alleged indexicality of film more than any one line has the right to do. That isn’t indexicality in the sense of whether what happens in front of the camera is replicated perfectly, but in the sense of whether what is replicated perfectly is really a believable document of what really happened in a larger sense—it’s as anti-Godard as can be. But Rithy Panh (through his narrator Randal Douc) has every right to question the realities that cinema supposedly offers us. It’s not that there is no footage of the atrocities; it’s just that the footage that exists is state-sanctioned; people will be growing food, walking, doing relatively harmless things. A photographer who took pictures and video of executions and other crimes was himself executed and his footage seized. So the cinema does not lie, at least in the sense that it isn’t fabricated, but it certainly does not tell the truth about the death of millions, either.
Panh juxtaposes this archival footage with his own recreations, which he achieves with clay sculpture miniatures, all of which is accompanied by narration that regularly wanders off into philosophical musings, personal asides, and thoughts on cinema. The trick is obvious, that the man-made and fabricated source tells more of the truth than the indexical cinema, but it’s also effective and is constantly complicated. Panh might be recreating the unfilmed events, but that means he’s also pitting memory against recording. Likewise, his recreations, which are being filmed, of course, fill in the gap in information that state-sanctioned recordings intentionally left out. The narration is always good for one or two mentions of all these facts, just enough to clue you in but also vague enough to leave the heavy lifting for the viewer, and a couple shots of the film prints also remind you that the focus isn’t necessarily the crimes themselves but the memory and records of them.
Narratively, The Missing Picture tends to move in circles, returning again and again to the starving, the executed, and the sick, often veering into extremely personal territory. At the same time, the clay replications are beautifully done, and the beauty of the staging and details parallels the illusory nature of the cinema. Similarly, a few scenes mix the archival with the miniatures in their reenactments, which equates the two mediums and shows that the truth of the matter is in both, a visual equivalent of the narrative aid that memory and recreation can be as truthful as recordings and that recordings can be as misleading as a staged play.
In these ways, The Missing Picture would make for a grim double feature with The Act of Killing, this year’s other cinematic documentary that reckons cinema with memory. Like that film, it’s heart-wrenching but also supremely intelligent look at the dark side of humanity and the way that art can affect the way we perceive them. In Oppenheimer’s film, art was a cathartic tool that worked with memory to bring the perpetrators of the crime a bit closer to consciousness. Panh is displaying how important memory is; without it, both genocides would be untold horror stories. With memory and film in conjunction, maybe we can learn from our mistakes.