The Missing Picture
How Does The Film Work With Created Objects And Historical Documents To Reflect On The Traumatic History Of Cambodia During The Khmer Rouge Period?
Rithy Pan’s ‘The Missing Picture’ (2013) is a powerful documentary depicting the horrors of Cambodian Genocide under the ruling of Khmer Rouge from 1975-1979. The filmmaker’s choice to reenact his teenage experiences using human clay figurines raises captivating and challenging issues of representation. Illustrations of detailed dioramas compose the majority of the film that symbolize the harsh reality of mass killings of more than 25% of Cambodia population in less than three years. It is a search for a lost childhood resembling Panh’s search for a lost picture of his childhood. The missing picture unearths the truth about his traumatizing childhood experiences.
Panh’s film on Khmer Rouge genocide displays mass killings, identify destruction, and stress that accumulated among survivors. Pahn’s inspiration to use clay figurines was envisioned after visiting his maternal home after they had been expelled many years ago. He discovered changes that major changes had happened in his original home, which triggered him to request his assistant to produce a clay sculptor representing him in his original home. The clay figurines were modelled from wet clay obtained from the riverbed (Amazon, 2016). The clay used was a powerful metaphor. The figurines were unbaked leaving them fragile and impermanent. Most of forced labor done by Panh included shoveling dirt, which resembled clay work done. The figurines represented the dead family members and friends, and were symbols of genocide survivors who were not in a position to tell their experiences. The figurines in the Missing picture film represent the younger generations of Cambodians murdered in 1970s. One of the darkest episodes represents painful memories from the loss of his parents and sisters.
The film explains the reality of people long gone and their sufferings in the hands of Khmer Rouge. All screens are full of blood shed with devastating films of sufferings in forced labor. Clay dioramas recounted memories of his experiences when he was a young man and forced to work in Cambodian fields, which spelt death (Romney, 2014). It was a devastating firsthand account when a social revolution was terrible and destroyed the lives of Cambodian’s. The archival footage existing in the film reflects the era of Cambodian history. It betrays realities of daily life insisting on life of communists, which is distorted by cruelty, revolutions, and struggle for victory. Static clay figures reflected victims of forced labor in their desperate conditions, but their experiences were not captured in newsreels or photographs. The clay explains that Khmer Rouge overworked them as if they had no blood and would not get tired. The sculptors in the film represent masses of workers, children, and adults who hauled loads of earth and rice on yokes on their shoulders as they moved across landscapes reduced to calcified lunar surfaces. Panh aimed at expressed the bitterness inside workers in its most direct version using clay sculptors (Netflix, 2016).
Truth about sufferings and experiences of Cambodian people was easily told using clay sculptors, although their first hand evidence was missing. The figurines resembled toys that enabled children to reflect on traumas and abuses encountered during the time. Moreover, they presented the childhood of Panh and his stressful encounters (Romney, 2014). The figurines used reminded Panh when they were captured with his family at eleven years and driven from Phnom Penh home. It was during this time that his father decided to go without food until he dies instead of eating animal food, which would lower his dignity. Hunger was great and killed his mother even before he could eat trapped fish brought by Panh. The toys are direct to the point on evils he faced in his childhood making the film easily understood by children. The film is full of killing acts, which were abusive and trivial to citizens.
Clay images in the film are beautiful, although the harrowing effect is revealed by the gentleness of the carvings. Khmer Rouge had destroyed personal property and left all clothes dyed black and one spoon for all individuals. Panh arranged the clay figures in intricate diorama sets representing his family in a lively patio in Phnom Penh (thatched hut built by his mother in the forest). Muddy rice paddies represented fields where his mother was forced to work. The pictures of roughly painted figures strikes the eye especially the way they are tilling the rice farm. The figure representing his father was dressed in a white suit with his brothers figure with a guitar and Panh’s figure dressed in an orange shirt and red short (Yue,2014). The figures later stay still in the dirt as they lay on wooden slat beds in the infirmary. The stillness of their picture reminds people of the lost people and pictures which cannot be retrieved.
The archival footage of child laborers indicated the fatigue, starvation, and cruelty that existed in Cambodia. Khmer Rouge footage prompts the memories of Panh’s, thus allowing clay figures to solemnize the unmoving life. Images of canisters that were rusted filled each scene in a distorted way. The archival images rest in the vaults of Bophana Audiovisual Resource center. The archive was founded in 2006 to act as the preservation for history of film industry in the country (Yue, 2014). Figurines that were dressed colorfully stood in a flashback scene as they watched Apollo moon landing (Romney, 2014). The carvings burst into sheers of joy as they played in the pouring rain. The figurines indicate that the children had nobody to care for them and get them out from the rain, since their parents were already separated and taken to work in the firms.
The documentary cinema is cast in sets of leaves, water, wood and clay as figurines are used to create a picture of what actually happened at the time of Cambodia genocide. People living in rain forest villages witnessed hunger, suffering, starvation, diseases and death. The film captures the pain of Panh using clay figures to indicate the reality of the experiences they had in Cambodia. Clay figures are armed with wooden spoons working under forced labor, wearing black clothes. The figurines were also in resistance as indicated by tiny gesture and silence. The silence indicates the denial of all human rights by the communists, and oppression they faced. Forest sounds could be heard from the film, voices of playing children and tiling of the earth. The story is much personal as depicted by the pain and anger of people working under forced labour and children crying as they desperately look for their separated parents (Amazon, 2016).
Khmer Rouge was involved in massacre of more than two million people through a fanatical communist movement that imposed forced labor, control, and execution of Cambodia citizens from their villages. The Khmer Rouge aimed at transforming Asian country into classes agrarian Utopia which resulted in community destruction through killings which led to confrontations from the rest of the world. Cambodian genocide is explained as (pol pot) Khmer Rouge party leader attempts to centralize and nationalize the society of peasant farmers in Cambodia overnight, according to Chinese Communist agricultural mode (United States memorial museum, 2016). Years before Genocide occurred Cambodia population was more than seven million with most [people being Buddhists. Genocide was triggered by seization of Lon Nol from power by the government in 1975, which lasted until the overthrawal of Khmer Rouge by Vietnamese in 1978. Harsh political climate and social unrest brought about genocide. The region remained devastated until 1980s.
Khmer Rounge scandal
The Khmer Rounge was a cruel revolutionary group, which was committed on Cambodian society revolution. Khmer Rouge soldiers comprised of young boys who were uneducated and peasants from the province who matched into phnom Penh, which was the modern capital. Most of them had never been in town before.
The army displaced Phnom Penh forcing its occupants to march towards the countryside leaving behind all their belongings. The captives were forced to dig canals and tend crops. All forms of self-expression such as freedom of worship, culture among others. Families were separated as children were recruited into labor brigades that were mobile. Former government officials were forced to surrender their positions as the capital cities were brutally emptied. Hospitalized patients in white gowns were forced to stumble with their IV bottles. Children screams were heard as they searched for their parents (United States memorial museum, 2016). Khmer Rounge continued to recruit more members since the group was originally small. Many people in Cambodia were disappointed by the western democracy because of many deaths in Cambodians resulting from strategy of the US to include Cambodia in the Vietnam War.
New recruits joined the Pol Pot’s Khmer Rounge guerrilla movement because of the heavy attack of U.S and the alliance between Lon Nol’s and U.S. By 1975, Pol Pot’s force grew to more than 700,000 men. After few days Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Phen, policies of collectivization were implemented by pol. The government controlled all schools, hospitals, communal labor, and institutions among other property. Pol Port admired Mao, which meant communism, and Stalinism, he had a vision of creation of new Cambodia that was based on Maoist-Communist model. He aimed at restoring the country to its primitive years.
The citizens would participate in rural work projects while removing western innovations. Khmer Rouge attempted to centralize and nationalize peasant farming overnight in Cambodia. Khmer had a special believe of laboring all Cambodia citizens for collective arms federation (United States memorial museum, 2016). Persons questioning the new order were tortured and killed by guns, while members of the movement were killed since some were suspected traitors and spies for foreign powers. The policy would eliminate opposers of the movement through death. Cambodia genocide was merciless since it forced all people from their villages and hometowns and killed those unable to walk long journeys such as the old, disabled, young, and handicapped. Those who refused to free from their homes were immediately killed together with those who opposed the new regime. The entire city was left with nobody as residents were evacuated from their homes. Citizens civil and political rights were abolished as major separation were done between parents and their children. Parents were sent to different labor camps. Slavery was practiced among those who managed to travel the long journeys marching to the desired directions. The captives worked on minimum rations endless working hours while most of them were not paid. Most people who lived survived on public communes, which resembled military ballacks.
Food shortages and medicine were common due to mismanagement of the economy and rampant contagious diseases killed Cambodia citizens (United States memorial museum, 2016). Khmer Rouge ended up killing most Cambodians since they could survive starvation, illnesses, slave labor that made them incapable of working physically. Kang Kek Iew used the slogan ‘to spare you is no profit; to destroy you is loss’. Opposers included professionals, doctors, lawyers, journalists, upper class member’s students, and professors. There was a major shut down of factories, hospitals, schools among other private institutions. Former owners of the closed institutions were killed and their employees murdered together with their extended families. People found speaking a foreign language were killed on the spot together with those who wore glasses since they were thought of as traitors and in association with the west (The museum of modern art, 2016). Showing emotion was forbidden since those found crying or smiling were killed. Most killings were inspired by militant communist transformation propaganda, which believed that intellectuals and journalists were great threat to the state.
Khmer Rouge targeted religious and ethnic groups such as religious enthusiasts, Muslims, Christians, Vietnamese, Thai, and Buddhists, who were all persecuted. Christian missionaries and Buddhist monks were all killed while temples and churches were burnt. Minority groups were relocated by force while use of minority languages was banned. Khmer Rouge executed some members and interrogated its personal membership after suspicions of sabotage and treachery (World without genocide, 2015). The ability of individual to work determined their survival. As a result, the handicapped, ill, and children suffered greatly for their inability to work physically daily. American Embassy by the time was concerned with Cambodia and the effect of Vietnam War.
U.S. embassy in Phnom Penh was not interested with victims. Khmer Rouge led to loss of more than three million Cambodians. More than 25% of the population died from Khmer Rouge policies such as forced relocation, forced labor, malnutrition, and mass executions. Hills (2014) adds that Panh and his family were moved to Khmer Rouge labor camps where they were forced to work for more than twelve hours each day. The hours were spent cultivating rice fields, building roads, burying the dead and hauling rocks. Breaks were few where interpersonal contacts were restricted. There was minimal food, which caused the death of her mother father and siblings. Most people encountered major sufferings after end of Khmer Rouge, where thousands flew to Thailand; some were forced to eat leaves, roots, and bugs found along the way. Some starved to death. Those who migrated to Thailand suffered from typhoid, malaria, cholera among other illnesses, which they spread to the origins in the camps. Over 650,000 people died year after Khmer Rouge fall. Khmer survivors suffered stress, depression, and lack of treatment for various diseases (United States memorial museum, 2016).