Un Certain Regard at Cannes, selected for the festivals of Toronto, New York, Chicago and elsewhere, as well as its country’s first Oscar nomination, writer-director-coeditor Rithy Panh’s The Missing Picturs/L’image manquante is unusual in its documentary recreation method and, beyond the medium of film, in its theme.
Any given day, the planet is scarred by a couple dozen wars declared or not, incursions, takeovers, genocides, atrocities, most of them unheard of outside their own compass. Some few are sexy enough for real-time media and political consideration, others come to light if at all only long after the fact.
Narrated in soulful subtitled French -- an English-voiced version exists -- the ninety-two minutes deals, not with a horrific past per se, nor really with a search for that past or a means to deal with or explain it nor with survivor guilt. Rather, it concerns the grown-up person who is at once the eleven-year-old whose boyhood was made to vanish in the delusions of this or that adult agenda. That child is was/is Panh, who survived the madness to escape to and be educated in Paris. But, like the uncountable thousands of his age group everywhere who could not leave for some mother country (or often did not survive at all), he is still that living past from which, however distant in time or place, he cannot escape.
Sir Winston Churchill “lived seventy-eight years without hearing of bloody places like Cambodia”; and once U.S. bombing ended with withdrawal from Saigon, the world forgot the ancient kingdom, unaware that Disney’s The Jungle Book borrowed legendary unvisited Angkor Wat. The Khmer Rouge reign of terror, 1975-79, further cut the country off with a cultural revolution to practice “pure” communism and extirpate any slightest vestige of Western capitalist contamination.
In the process, until U.N.-condemned Vietnamese troops drove the Khmer into the jungle, “impure” colonial “Paris of the East” Phnom Penh was disinhabited, disassembled in a blink. Currency, newspapers and postal service abolished in that “Year Zero,” those suspected of intellectual, non-salt-of-the-earth peasant leanings were to be reeducated, reduced to starvation -- “hunger” is an operative word in this totalitarian dehumanization -- in forced work camps.
Like the Third Reich, Pol Pot’s gang meticulously documented its doings. Famously, tens of thousands of victims’ headshots line the walls of school-become-detention-torture-center Tuol Sleng, “Auschwitz sur le Mekong,” anticipating piled skulls that line the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. For reasons not explained, like one official regime photographer who took them, most film records are missing, having disappeared or crumbled into cellulose nitrate disks in rusted canisters.
Some few streaked b&w frames are included, poorly acted regime propaganda dramas, or leaders applauding and being applauded, or snaking lines of the doomed breaking rocks and barren earth. Clay figures are carved and painted, primitive and wooden looking but thus the more effective with screaming mouths amidst features otherwise drained of emotion; not claymation, they are frozen, posed, unmoving and unnerving.
Apart from child Panh’s pinkish-and-blobbed shirt, they are in black pajamas, allowed to possess only a spoon. Herded by guards sporting soldiers’ red or checked neckerchiefs, they lie on hospital pallets, are executed when their own children inform on them, are dumped into trenches, or, living, squat on bare ground or roost in flooded tree branches and drink muddy water even the buffaloes shy away from.
In fleeting contrast, the past, the family, community, and traditional and Western dance, music and instruments are happy figures of memory in the bright colors of Southeast Asia, There, when not watching movies being made, the little boy who remembered and survived may fly above the clouds, to the moon and stars.
Some few continue to deny even the documented Shoah. With cinema increasingly reassembling material or recreating, what is art to do with what is not documented, with the missing? To break the stoniest heart, MP shows, not the haunted-eyed adults who lived through Hitler, Stalin, Pinochet, Pol Pot, Videla, but the blank-eyed children who emerged to become adults down the line. They march in a parade of child prostitutes -- Holly treats the issue in Cambodia -- and soldiers, addicts and victims, children abused, hurt and traumatized who carry within them an unspeakable emptiness into the future.
(Released by Strand Releasing; not rated by MPAA.)