Cambodia: “I seek my childhood like a lost picture” — Review of the Documentary The Missing Picture — The North Star Reports, sponsored by The Middle Ground Journal. By Cait Greeley
The Cambodian documentary, The Missing Picture, directed by Rithy Pahn, offers a terribly beautiful portrayal of a dark time in Khmer history. The title comes from the opening scene in the film, which features a room filled with old rolls of water-damaged film in rusted and deteriorated film cases. These rolls hold the history of the Khmer Rouge regime and its devastating impact on the people of Cambodia . It sets the stage for the rest of the movie as it reveals a lost time and voided past- a “missing picture.”
The scenes throughout the film consist of clay figurines placed into physical land features that include the presence of natural elements like water, rain, trees, and fields. The clay figurines are used as the actors in the film; I cannot determine if they are used to help lessen the horror story or if they actually heighten it. The film almost feels like it could be viewed by young children, yet it is dark enough for a mature audience. It was very imaginative on the director’s part to take an existing account of the horrific events that took place and making it more like fiction with the use of clay.
The artistic components of the film are stimulating, particularly the use of contrast. Many contrasts were seen all through the film: most notably, the contrast of fear and the hope-filled human heart were skillfully blended throughout the film. The main character’s yellow and red polka-dotted pink shirt, which represents his youthfulness, makes him stand out as the main character against the crowd of black shrouds. The contrast between life and death is represented in colors. Those cloaked in black were already dead, whereas the main character survived. The way in which the director contrasts the reality of the physical environment against the subtlety of the clay medium is especially noteworthy. One scene depicting fishing and rain stands out. After a rainstorm, the clay model figurines are drenched, dripping with real water. The ponds in which the clay figurines cast their reel have real fish swimming in them. In this way, perhaps, the director wants to remind the audience that the story being told is not merely a work of fiction, but reality.
Another significant scene contrasts the clay scenarios to actual footage being played in the film. In the clay hospital scenes, showing where people at the labor camps went to die, the trauma felt dimmed through the use of clay. However, the next scene uses actual footage of medical experimentation that the Khmer Rouge conducted on rats. The same extremely traumatic experiments were also used to torture people at the S21 extermination center.
The way in which Rithy conveyed emotion was compelling. Throughout the film, the mood shifts from bitter sweetness, noted in the use of bright colors, to a somber, uniform sea of black with everyone having the same ghastly look on their faces. As the colors faded out, the mood was heightened by the presence of real life footage taken from the Khmer Rouge. Interestingly, the camera man who took the footage was killed yet the footage remains. The black-and-white footage serves as gloomy backdrop against the clay figures. All the while, the mood shifts in the music, alternating from joyful to haunting with the bellow sounds of the cello and wails of various stringed instruments. As the narrator in the film states, “soon there will be no more love. Soon there will be no more emotion, and even words will be transformed.”
The meditative sounds of flutes and chimes used to accompany the main character’s flashbacks to his pre-war youth makes for a nostalgic experience. The sounds are reminiscent of classic Khmer music, creating an element of remembrance while the past was being erased. This stands in stark contrast to the pop music I heard during my more recent time in Cambodia. The music from the film signifies its time and historical focus well, and given my personal experiences in Cambodia, it is interesting to note how the sound has changed from pre-war to post-war.
In having seen and frequented the places the director takes us in the film, including the locations of atrocities which took place not long ago, I can’t help but wonder what his intent was in creating such a film. Was it more for personal healing and reconciliation, seeing that he’d lost his entire family to the Khmer Rouge? Or was he speaking to a particular audience, as the last line of the film declares: “This missing picture I now hand over to you so that it never sees to seek us out.” By saying this, does he want to pass the message along to someone in particular?
Intriguingly, The Missing Picture was submitted to be nominated for an Academy Award in the U.S. this year. Was the director trying to appeal to the West in doing so? There were specific scenes that speak to an international audience. One particular scene in the film, which takes place between the start of Pol Pot’s seizing power and the sending of thousands of citizens to labor camps, involves a storyteller telling a tale. The story recounts a Khmer family gathered around a television set watching the U.S. space shuttle rocket launch into space, thus marking history with the first person to land on the moon. The storyteller was later executed for telling that tale of inspiration. There was also a scene that talked about the Americans dropping bombs on Cambodian soil, which sparked the poor majority to join “the revolution” under false information. Is it meant to imply that the U.S. in some way responsible for what happened? What is the sentiment such scenes are intended to evoke? One scene in particular resonated with me. It depicts starving Khmer people working in labor camps to fill sacks of rice, not to feed themselves, but to feed the “revolutionary” leaders and to ship the rice abroad. Was that rice being shipped to the U.S.? Did the U.S. have any idea of what was occurring at the time a world away? Or were we left in the dark? Such scenes led me to believe that the director included them for a reason: I believe that they speak to a particular audience, perhaps to an international audience. The additional fact that the film is narrated in English reinforces my conclusion. Was the medium of film used to provoke interest in the topic, as is often done with pop culture? If the director is targeting a certain audience, why is he doing so? For the purpose of looking towards the future? The ending leaves a heavy brick of responsibility on the viewer’s heart by stating he wants to hand it over to “you” without explaining the purpose. To learn from what happened? To prevent such tragedy from happening again? Or was the film meant to bridge the gap between the older Khmer generation and the youth? Perhaps with the use of clay, the director could focus on a young audience. Through clay, he could turn a horrific nightmare of a time into something comprehensible for them. Maybe more than recognition from the West, he wanted the message to reach the youth.
Without a doubt, the war has completely changed and reshaped the country, leaving major impacts for the future. The question is what the people of Cambodia will choose to do with them. Is that why Rithy directs our attention to this? Rather than being an isolated chapter of the past, he draws out the ways in which events are connected. Perhaps his overall intent in sharing this film is for everyone to do their part to ensure that history does not repeat itself.
Source of documentary poster, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_Missing_Picture_2013_poster.jpg
More information on the documentary: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Missing_Picture_(film)
Please contact Professor Liang if you wish to contribute to The North Star Reports — HLIANG@CSS.EDU
For all of the North Star Reports, see http://NorthStarReports.org
The North Star Reports: The Middle Ground Journal’s collaborative outreach program with K-12 classes around the world. We acknowledge North Star Academy of Duluth, Minnesota as our inaugural partner school, and the flagship of our K-12 outreach program. We also welcome Duluth East High School and other schools around the world. The North Star Reports has flourished since 2012. For a brief summary, please see the American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History, at:
The North Star Reports will share brief dispatches from our student interns, particularly from those who are currently stationed, or will soon be stationed abroad. Student interns have reported from Mongolia, Southern China, Shanghai, northeastern China, The Netherlands, Tanzania, Ireland, England, Finland, Russia, and Haiti. We also have students developing presentations on theatrical representations of historical trauma, historical memory, the price individuals pay during tragic global conflicts, and different perceptions of current events from around the world. We will post their dispatches, and report on their interactions with the North Star Reports students and teachers.
Hong-Ming Liang, Ph.D., Chief Editor, The Middle Ground Journal, Associate Professor of History and Politics, The College of St. Scholastica, Duluth, MN, USA
(c) 2012-present The Middle Ground Journal. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy.