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
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).