Rithy Panh has been making films since 1989, but the only film of his that I’d heard of was The Burnt Theatre because it was selected for Cannes in 2005. A documentary about a Cambodian theatre troupe that is intent upon rehearsing despite dire circumstances seemed interesting — they’re working at putting up a production of Cyrano de Bergerac, I think — but I didn’t really hunt the film down. I will now, having watched Panh’s newest documentary, The Missing Picture.
The Missing Picture is an incredible visual experience. You can read a hundred articles that tell you Panh uses clay figurines and archival footage to recreate his memories of Khmer Rouge rule in Cambodia, but it won’t prepare you for the visual and emotional impact of those still diorama. Now and then, you see hands sculpting the clay figures. You notice the detail in those little sculptures, whether human or animal. They record the changes — the delusions, the effects of starvation, the flights of fancy — and there’s such a painful contrast between the child’s-play quality of clay dolls and the suffering that they’re enacting. Panh was 13 when the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh in 1975; just a boy really. It seems so poignantly fitting that his memories should be pieced together by these toy-like objects. They are both the bearers of history as well as tombstones to the innocence that was lost in the years Panh spent in Khmer Rouge’s camps.
For me, though, the beauty of The Missing Picture was in Panh’s words. Panh tells his story using the good old-fashioned device of the voice over. For the entire duration of the film, that’s the only person you hear and his words are so poetic, so perfect that I wanted to tattoo almost every line upon my memory. Just listen/read to the fragments in these videos.
I’ve been wondering ever since I watched The Missing Picture if Panh speaks like this all the time. After some YouTube-ing, I can report that he actually does, even when he’s speaking in English. These quotes about The Missing Picture are from interviews whose links I’ve lost (sorry. Too many tabs).
In fact, in the beginning, the characters weren’t supposed to be in clay as they are in the film. I shot for a year and half with a lot of different photographers and cameramen who had worked with the Khmer Rouge to learn about the way that they had created their images. In fact, it is a way through filming in fact I learned, little by little, and I finally ended up using these clay characters because I wasn’t able to go back to the home place. So and to remember about my childhood in 1975 when I was chased away. In fact the house I used to live in became a brothel or a game parlour, something like that. This is why I decided to build a model of the house and I worked on the memory that I had of the house and I created a character to put it inside the house and it became the film.
I was always very interested in archive films and I in fact created a centre of audio visual memory in Cambodia and I found films on the Khmer Rouge and made it as accessible to the public. I watched hours and hours of archives of films. Then I tried to imprint all these images in my mind and to feel free with these images to use them. There are interesting elements like the overexposed film. Usually when there’s an accident and the film is is overexposed you’d throw it away. But the Khmer Rouge kept these footages of overexposed film and that’s why I thought it was interesting. Later I understood they had kept this footage as proof to condemn a cameraman who had badly shot Pol Pot and poor hungry children as well. Then I found in a detention centre called S 21 a confession given by a Khmer Rouge cameramen before being executed. And I thought that maybe this footage that must be somewhere, hidden somewhere, underneath the ground, so that’s why it’s the missing image.
But the missing image is in my head. Maybe it doesn’t exist. Maybe it’s the image of my family, my childhood.
When you see where Cambodia comes from, 30 years ago, to get an award in Cannes… it’s great for us. That means we are alive, that means we can express our sentiment. It means … that Khmer Rouge didn’t destroy it [the imagination], cannot destroy it. … When you preserve your heritages, when you can preserve your memory, it means you can construct social cohesion.
… when you see Buddha statue in stone and you pray in front of the Buddha statue in stone, maybe for you the Buddha is very nice art object, but for us it’s not only art, it’s also soul. It’s not only stone, it’s also soul. The figurines for me is like that. Like a glazed figurine but also figurine who have a soul. You know, they don’t move in the film. They rest fixed and just express some dignity … .
You will not ask Woody Allen to stop shooting in New York. It’s his life. Unfortunately, I have lived the Khmer Rouge history so I make films about my story. One day when I finish with the Khmer Rouge genocide, I will make the film I like. … After you’ve already wrote your history and your book, you can turn over the page you can write a new story, your dream.
When you make a film, what are you doing? You are looking for a picture, a missing picture. Then you finish a film, you make another one. You find some picture, you start another picture, another film. You are running after the new missing picture again. For me, I make many films, fiction film, love story, and I make many film about the Khmer Rouge genocide. So I met some Khmer Rouge photographer who told me that they photography about executions. … I’m not interested to find this picture finally because one picture cannot tell all the truth. One picture cannot justify a crime. But I’m very interested by the journey to search the missing picture.