ECCC Reparations

This blog is designed to serve as a repository of analyses, news reports and press releases related to the issue of RERAPATIONS within the framework of the Extraordinary Chambers in Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), a.k.a. the Khmer Rouge Tribunal.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

New Film on the Democratic Kampuchea Period

Numerous international film festivals have given Rithy Panh’s The Missing Picture a generous reception. It has also enjoyed great critical acclaim outside the festivals. It is indeed a remarkable film, with the visuals that display incredible creative talent.

Most of the film’s visuals are clay figurines and sets that besides serving as beautiful art keep the viewer focused on the fact that the story is being told from a child’s point of view. The use of clay figurines is also an emotional trick the filmmaker plays on us, whether consciously or not. That trick is the common perception that clay figurines in a film usually suggest lightness, levity, joy, and a child’s carefreeness and we are subconsciously made to anticipate those, even though consciously we know that the film was made by an urbanite survivor of the Khmer Rouge and none of these things can be reasonably anticipated.

The film’s slow-paced, reflective and almost lethargic poetic narrative coupled with great imagery reminded me of a work of another Westerner of Southeast Asian descent, Tony Bui and his Three Seasons.

With all the artistic merits of the film, when Pahn remembers reminiscing his pre-Democratic Kampuchea life in the Phnom Penh of the early 1970s, he forgets to tell the viewer this: This is how we, the urbanites of Phnom Penh, lived ensconced in Western and Soviet aid; the people in the rest of the country lived in absolute mind-numbing squalor, a life of little joy and much figuring out where the next bowl of rice was going to come from. I am not a Khmer Rouge apologist but I believe that the viewer must be presented with a full and fair picture of what the filmmaker is talking about. I do not believe Pahn did that as according to the film life was laughs, smiles and parties until the Khmer Rouge came and turned it all off and plunged the fun-loving and joyful society into the eerie abyss of labor camps. I do not doubt that this is exactly what happened to Panh and his family but this is hardly how the rural denizens of Cambodia would describe it.

Most of the film is told as a personal story and that is where its substantive strength lies. It is, however, interspersed with comments on the contemporaneous geopolitical situation, nationwide events, particulars of the party line and many other things that Pahn had no way of knowing living in Democratic Kampuchea as a child. Understandably, he has learned them since but their inclusion does two disservices to the film: (1) it undermines it as the narrative of a child; and (2) it offers sweeping conclusions and statements without disclosing Pahn’s sources of knowledge that informed these conclusions and brought about these statements.

These imperfections notwithstanding, the film is doubtless worth seeing. Each will find something in it for himself or herself: The more artistically-inclined of us will find great imagery and the more cerebral ones will find those bits and pieces of the picture of Democratic Kampuchea that always seem to be missing no matter how long you have studied that period (I, for one, learned that Democratic Kampuchea made patriotic feature films and showed them at movie nights in the cooperatives).             


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