01/08/2017

The Missing Picture - The Despair Of Re-Creation

Thoughts On: The Missing Picture (L'Image Manquante, 2013)


Made by Rithy Panh, this is the Cambodian film of the series.


The Missing Picture is an astounding, even beautiful, documentary steeped in immeasurable despair and misery. It is very reminiscence of both The Act Of Killing and Waltz With Bashir for the manner in which it recreates historical scenes of atrocity. However, whilst The Act Of Killing created live action scenes with the actual perpetrators of the depicted crimes and Waltz With Bashir utilised animation to build up to a use of archival footage, The Missing Picture uses clay models and a blend of archival news footage. And in such, it depicts the conditions which our filmmaker, Rithy Panh, lived through and knew of during Pol Pot's reign of power in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979.

All of Panh's films deal with the Khmer Rouge, which was the communist party that was led by Pol Pot between 75 and 79, and the aftermath of their reign. So, to give a little background, the Khmer Rouge, after they overthrew the previous military dictatorship following the Vietnam and the Cambodian Civil War, enacted a genocidal regime upon the Cambodian people involving forced labour camps that fuelled a facade of a socialist or communist state, but were far more sinister and corrupt at their core. The end result of their regime, as fully revealed after the Cambodian-Vietnamese War that stretched between 1977 and 1993, and after the Vietnamese overthrew the Khmer Rouge, was the death of, out of a population of approximately 8 million people, 1.5-3 million people, which would have a resounding effect on the culture and structure of the country to present day.

Panh accounts his experience of this, which included him witnessing the death of his parents, siblings, friends and countless other people, in The Missing Picture to devastating effect. There are certainly many tragic layers to this film as a result of its broad use of themes; everything from childhood to human achievement to political ideologies and more. However, what struck me most about this film was certainly the formal choices, the use of clay models, and the implications of this.

As the title, The Missing Picture, suggests, Panh is attempting to both fill in and draw attention to a gap that has formed in history. In such, this narrative reveals the bittersweetness that has pervaded all recent history following the birth of photography and cinema. Whilst we've had the technology to documented raw history like never before since the advent of this technology, this opportunity has always fallen through to vary degrees. A good example of this could be seen with the film The Battle of The Somme made in 1916. This was a landmark documentary as it depicted, or at least aimed to depict, the reality of WWI. However, despite showing harrowing destruction and death, The Battle Of The Somme is considered a piece of British propaganda for the manner in which it depicts the battle as a success for the British - which it was far from. An estimated 20,000 British soldiers died whilst 40,000 were wounded on the first day alone, leaving The Battle Of The Somme one of the most devastating battles a British army has ever faced and the world, including those whose armies also fought in this battle, has ever seen. Resultantly, the confrontation, which concluded with the death and wounding of around 1 million of the 3 million men that fought, should be considered more a tragedy and less the success, for the British, that the 1916 film Battle Of The Somme depicts.

Such a phenomena of half truths, lies, secrecy, propaganda and 'fake news' in media format has continued through the ages to varying degrees with, time and time again, technology failing to provide the world truth. But, whilst we could consider this on great scales with films such as The Battle Of The Somme, there is an entire spectrum of bittersweetness that includes the millions of untold and lost stories, or "missing pictures", of those that suffer at the hands of war, battle, murderous regimes, neglectful structures and violent acts.

The Missing Picture as a narrative and a documentary reflects on this paradigm through re-creation, showing that everyone and everything has a voice, in silence and in being, but that those voices are often never projected far enough and with the quality that they maybe deserve. This is why the use of clay figurines holds such a melancholic reality; lost stories are trying to be retold and missing pictures are trying to find their way before an audience, but the essence of the stories remains elusive. In such, by building his story, Panh manages to make a statement, but also ruminates on the manner in which he makes it. The statement that Panh makes essentially describes the nature of a communist state and its need for universal contribution; the whole system must work together or it falls through. Putting to the side to some degree the corruption and formation of a hierarchy in a system that claims utmost equality, the force of this initial need for universal contribution is shown to be one that is predicated not on the voluntary choices of a nation, instead their involuntary enslavement - which is what results in the genocidal regime of the Khmer Rouge. But, having made this statement, Panh seems to regress into questioning how this statement is to be spread; how is he supposed to commemorate and give a voice to his lost family and the millions of dead? Is it even right to project the voices and personal stories of those lost to this tragedy? To what degree and to what detail, if it can, is technology supposed to exposit and depict historical truth, or just truth in general?

Having constructed, as Panh implies and partly claims, something close to what we can assume is the truth, though unable to capture anything near the whole truth qualitatively, Panh only manages to hand us broken portions of this puzzle and ask us what we shall do with it. And such leaves this film ever more tightly linked to documentaries such as Waltz With Bashir and The Act Of The Killing, but also overwhelmingly melancholic and crushingly profound.

So, to end, what are your thoughts on this film and all we've covered today?

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