The Missing Picture

The Missing Picture ★★★★½

had a great Twitter conversation with Ben Hynes (letterboxd.com/cautiousdisplay), who suggested that Rithy Panh's film is "contrapuntal" to Joshua Oppenheimer's THE ACT OF KILLING. I think that in a basic sense, both Panh and Oppenheimer are attempting to fill in the gap between history and memory - the crucial difference is that Panh rejects and even condemns cinema for its role in allowing the Khmer Rouge to seize and maintain control of his native Cambodia, while Oppenheimer is so taken by his morbid fascination with what the artifice of cinema does to the Indonesian war criminals and the recollections of their crimes in AoK that he can never quite move beyond it to question his own approach.

Panh's film is an interrogation of cinema itself as a means of remembering, and furthermore he suggests that memory in all its forms (cinematic and otherwise) proves only that one has survived long enough to carry the burden of remembering.

Throughout THE MISSING PICTURE, Panh offers these memories to the viewer in the form of crudely expressive clay diaromas and his own voiceover. There are three separate forms of artifice/distortion here, since Panh's voiceover is recorded in French by Jean-Baptiste Phou (a language he learned after escaping the Khmer Rouge) and subtitled in English. Then Panh adds yet another layer in the form of newsreel footage shot by the Khmer Rouge to sell the lie of their collectivized would-be utopia to both their own people and the world. Panh integrates these elements to distracting, disorienting effect in THE MISSING PICTURE, going so far as to edit his clay figurines into film footage of Phnom Penh - the end result is dissonance, not clarity, and certainly not any sort of objective truth. To watch THE MISSING PICTURE is to be swept away in a tide of memories and their subjective renderings - a literal image Panh returns to again and again.

Hynes suggested that "rather than presenting a single coherent position, the film enacts the processes by which image/identity are fragmented." It's that lack of a coherent position that makes THE MISSING PICTURE much more than simply a novel form of cinematic memoir. Rithy Panh has crafted an essay film - which is no less personal for being one - that questions the role of responsibility in history, memory, and cinema. Hynes, appropriately, answers these questions with another question: "Having done away with the notion of a sovereign history or stable image, how could any work be anything but a personal essay?"

For all their differences both THE MISSING PICTURE and THE ACT OF KILLING arrive at similar ends. Oppenheimer's exposing a denial/distortion of historical memory on a massive scale by further distorting it with cinematic artifice, until the surreal grotesque collapses in the sight of an old man retching and purging nothing. Yet Oppenheimer has a safe distance to which he can retreat from this dredging of the unresolved past, while Panh carries the burden of his memories always and cannot be rid of them. Those decaying film reels Panh lingers over are a reminder that the tools of memory - art, film - are as inevitably susceptible to decay as the body, the mind, the memory itself. What he offers us is (and must be) such a small, distant part of what he carries within.

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