The 20th Century seems characterized by extreme ideological movements that often turned murderous, sometimes in countries that seemed idyllic examples of peaceful culture. Germany comes to mind first of course, but China, Sri Lanka, Rwanda, Indonesia, and Cambodia are other terrible examples. The Cambodian holocaust received relatively little press in the United States partially because it occurred immediately after the fall of South Vietnam in 1975 and we were preoccupied with those stunning images of helicopters evacuating people from the roof of the embassy building in Saigon. And Cambodia became a hermetically sealed country after the takeover in 1975 by the Khmer Rouge. Further, few Westerners believed the horrifying reports by those who managed to flee Cambodia during the period, labeling it "anti-communist propaganda".
The Cambodian Communist Party was fighting the Japanese during WW II. The French reoccupied all of French Indochina (Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia) after the Japanese surrender in 1945, and the Communists began armed resistance in all three countries, most successfully in Vietnam. After a bloody war, the French left in 1954, Vietnam was split (North and South), and four independent countries emerged. Cambodia returned to a monarchy. The increasing war in South Vietnam, with North Vietnamese Army incursions and American bombings in response, all contributed to instability in Cambodia and devastation of some rural areas. Ultimately the Cambodian Communists, now called the Khmer Rouge (KR) and led by Pol Pot, overran the capital, Phnom Penh, in 1975 and began four years of horror.
Rithy Panh was 13 years old when the KR forced the entire population of Phnom Penh, a million people, into the countryside with no personal possessions and little food and water. This included Panh and his family, but only Panh survived. When the KR were forced out four years later by the Vietnamese Army, Panh was able to escape to France and became interested in film. He has done a number of award winning documentaries focused on the Cambodia holocaust including S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2003) and Duch, Master of the Forges of Hell (2012). His latest film, The Missing Picture, won top prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and was one of five nominees for best foreign language film for the Academy Awards in 2014. With The Missing Picture, Panh has produced a masterpiece that is powerful and unique in its technique. He uses tiny painted clay figures to construct dioramas of various scenes, such as a village, labor camps, a prison hospital, rice paddies and jungles. There are hundreds of these figures plus animals such as water buffalo and rats, which populate these detailed dioramas with elaborate painted backgrounds. Then he films them, with an actor speaking in French describing the scene. The narration is calm, elegiac, yet. lyric even as he relates terrible things. The figures are somewhat crude but detailed with painted clothing and hair. As the story of the famine and other cruelty progresses, the figures become thinner and thinner, with prominent ribs. In just a few minutes, we become accustomed to these figures and they become very expressive, powerful sculpture.
Panh intersperses the filming of his dioramas with archival footage taken by the Khmer Rouge, some of which is inadvertently horrifying as it shows thousands of people, like ants, using shoulder poles and primitive equipment to do major earthwork, such as canals and lakes. This footage was intended for propaganda purposes, with a background of heroic music. The scenes of a dozen workers carrying a boulder on a network of poles is riveting and frightening simultaneously. But when closely observed, many of the workers are thin, tired, and in the case of children, look exhausted. Panh describes the KR's use of hunger as a weapon against the perceived enemies of the state. Their definition of enemy was anyone who was associated in any way with learning, culture, and education, including Buddhist monks. The constant effort to purify the country by killing or "reeducating" duplicated Mao's disastrous program, the Great Leap Forward. The KR knew Mao had failed but felt that they would succeed by being even more zealous. At the same time they indoctrinated everyone with their obligation to expose any enemy. Labor camps were set up with the intention that few would survive. People were starving although the guards and cadre were always well fed. In a poignant scene, a circle of carved water buffalo watch in amazement as a person drinks muddy water. Extreme cruelty was the norm, and indeed, the method of "purifying the nation". One sad example was his story, illustrated in one of the dioramas, of a 9 year-old boy who turns his mother in for picking mangos at night. The boy is lauded, and the mother put to death. Yet some resisted, not with weapons, but by sharing food or water, a quick smile, help in carrying a load, and in other ways. Panh tells their story too. It is clear that Panh feels the guilt of having survived while his entire family died.
The raw statistics are difficult to comprehend. The most informed estimates are that no less than 2 million and possibly 3 million people out of a population of 7 million were executed, starved, or died of disease. Over 20,000 mass graves have been documented. This would have continued had the Vietnamese Army not invaded in 1979 and drove the KR out of Phnom Penh into western Cambodia, where they conducted a guerrilla war for many years. The KR leaders largely escaped any consequences for their crimes. Pol Pot died peacefully in his own bed. A very few war crimes trials have been conducted, with only two senior leaders sentenced so far.
The Missing Picture is a masterpiece of filmmaking, and a loving tribute to Panh's family and all who were murdered. Although there are no scenes of actual violence, this is a disturbing film. Despite its darkness, I loved this film. Panh has produced an important document of terrible events, a film that needs to be seen. The Missing Picture was nominated for best foreign language film at this year's Academy Awards. It did not win, no doubt because the topic is so dark, but it is unclear why it was not entered in the feature length documentary category. Playing time: 92 minutes. Just opened at the Landmarks' Opera Plaza. It does not seem to be screening anywhere else in the Bay Area and will likely not stay for more than a second week, if that. Ciao, Ian
Photos: Courtesy of The Missing Picture