Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Missing Picture

(L'image manquante, France, Cambodia, 2013)

The Missing Picture (L’image manquante) (2013) (France, Cambodia) This has to be the first Cambodian film I have ever seen. It was nominated for Best Foreign Language film (and lost to the completely unexciting The Great Beauty. It is narrated in English or French, take your pick, from a script by the director, Rithy Panh. And of course it is about the insanity of the Killing Fields of the 1980s. Mr. Panh went through hardships difficult for us to imagine. His father, mother, sisters, brothers, cousins … everyone in his family was killed, mostly by starvation. Pol Pot, one of the few national leaders who could make the North Koreans look relatively sane, had totally screwball ideas about the nobility of the “peasantry.” He turned everyone out of the cities (including the hospitals) and put them to work building huge earthworks and rice paddies, much of it for rains that never came.

Well, I can’t go into the chapter and verse of the Khmer Rouge atrocities. There are far too many insane, murderous ideas for me to try to deal with them. Read about them elsewhere if you can stomach it.

It is an episode of history that we want to turn away from. We don’t really want to have all this shoved in our faces again. (At least, I don’t. Call me a coward, that’s okay.) But Panh has found an ingenious way to tell the story, one that distances us from it and at the same time never lessens the impact. Part of the film is grainy B&W stuff shot by the Khmer Rouge, showing the ant-like masses working their asses off. (The dying, of course, is never shown.) But the bulk of it is cunning little dioramas like we used to see in museums, peopled by thousands of hand-carved and painted ceramic figures. This works amazingly well.

I’m sure this is not for everyone, but I highly recommend it.