This documentary revisits the now notorious period in which the Khmer Rouge attempted to implement a very particular form of rurally-based Communism in Cambodia / Kampuchea. This brutally distinctive experiment is usually lumped together with socialist revolutions in other states and/or what are termed ‘totalitarian’ states. Regarding the former it needs to be recognised that the political line of the Khmer Rouge had little in common with the writings of Marx and Engels on a Socialist alternative to Capitalism. Regarding the latter this concept fails to address the very different political economy of the variety of states so described.
I make this point because this film directed by Rithy Panh is very much a personal journey back to the past of the country from which he hails. He was a child when the Khmer Rouge seized power: he was 15 when he escaped to the west. The basis of the film is a contrast between Panh’s memories of Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge revolution and the genocidal practice that characterised this regime when it seized power. The film’s title makes the point that Panh has no filmic record for the first, and only the Khmer Rouge’s own film records for the latter.
To recreate the world of his childhood Panh uses beautifully modelled clay figures set in both urban and rural model settings. He also uses the same technique to partly recreate the world of the Khmer Rouge as he himself experienced it. This is interspersed with predominantly black and white film footage of the latter. The use of the models is impressive. And during the end credits we get to see the small studio where these were set out and filmed. They become even more impressive when you see the techniques in action.
This is very much a personal vision. The film is not really analytical. It offers a Manichean division between the pre-Khmer Rouge period and their own period of rule and misrule. His viewpoint is supported to a degree by the Khmer Rouge’s own film propaganda, which presents a world of horrific brutality and of grossly simplified political ideas and practice.
The visual material is supported by as commentary written by Christophe Bataille and Rithy Panh. This appears to be modelled on the commentary from Alain Resnais’s seminal documentary Nuit et Brouillard (Night and Fog, 1956). Both commentaries are in French, but more than that, the phrasing recalls the earlier film as does the tone and rhythm of the reading. For me though this film’s commentary lacked the complexity of the earlier one. It also appears to reference comparisons that have been drawn between the Khmer Rouge regime and that of the Third Reich. This ignores that the former was a response to the experience of French colonialism, the Japanese occupation, and a later US backed military junta. In the case of the latter its practices developed from those inflicted by colonial powers across Africa and other continents: those inflicting including France, Britain and Germany.
However the film does not just critically expose the Khmer Rouge. There are brief references to the exploitative form of the pre-Khmer Rouge Cambodia. And there is also the briefest mention of the bombing of Cambodia: carried out, of course, by the USA. The politicians of the latter state have been loud in their criticism of the Khmer Rouge but mainly silent on their own war crimes against Cambodia. Panh also briefly makes a point about the post-Khmer Rouge Kingdom of Cambodia with a shot of proletarians involved in labour as exploitative as that of the earlier society.
Rithy Panh has made a series of films about this sad period in the history of Cambodia. The most famous was S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2003). This film has some parallels with Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1965), as it uses a series of testimonies from both perpetrators and victims.
The Missing Picture is a finely created and presented documentary. It conveys a powerful sense of the violent inanities of the Khmer Rouge period. And with justice it criticises the atrocities of the regime and the venality of the leadership. I am disappointed that it came joint 17th in the Sight & Sound annual critic’s poll, some way behind the winner The Act of Killing (2012, the latter also up for an Oscar for Best Documentary). Rithy Panh’s film is both a finer and a more honest documentary than the study of equivalent atrocities in Indonesia. The Missing Picture is still on release: in Leeds the Hyde Park Picture House screens it on Tuesday March 11th.