Never the Truth Itself
Of course, when you’re making a documentary, you don’t have actors, but nonetheless there is a writing process, that does take place in the editing room. Every time you are getting ready to make a shot in a documentary film you are asking yourself questions about your cinematographic approach. You are approaching the truth, but the image is never the truth itself.
“We understand the Khmer Rouge by watching their footage. Pol Pot forges a reality conforming to his desire. Even nature must conform.” Rithy Panh’s assessment (narrated in English by Jean-Baptiste Phou) sounds right. In the Khmer Rouge’s simultaneously elaborate and rudimentary efforts to create reality, you might see their practices and, perhaps, glimpse their motives. But you also cannot. And it’s this discovery—of the limits of what you can know—that makes Panh’s The Missing Pictures (L’image manquante) so affecting, so devastating. You see. And you cannot.
This assessment that comes near the end of the film—Cambodia’s nominee for 2014’s Best Picture Academy Award—you see not footage by the Khmer Rouge but the mechanics of making or finding footage: hands digging through old reel cans, a projector, and a projector’s lens pointed directly at the camera, sprocket sounds loud and light flashing, momentarily making us into the very screen we cannot see. It’s a remarkable moment in a film full of remarkable moments. And as the projector light flashes, so brightly, the scene cuts to one of many populated by dolls, this time dolls assembled before a screen, on which you see some of the footage Panh references. The footage conjured bye Khmer Rouge, grainy and black and white, shows citizen soldiers making their way through thick foliage, guns slung over their backs, remains at a remove, watched by dolls who are in turn watched by you.
Such turns are complicated again, as children’s voices combine with the projector’s noise, singing as if happy. Cut from the screen to the audience of dolls, clay figures frozen, and then again, to a closer shot of soldier dolls standing to the side, near the screen, guns in hand. The film, narrates Panh, is like one he remembers seeing as a child, “boasting a barehanded fight against the colonial powers. Of course, we knew, the actors were bad, the film was bad, and many of us slept in the back, exhausted like me.” Cut to a mother doll holding a baby doll, prone as if unconscious in her lap.
Again, the moment is chilling. And again, you might contemplate not only what you’re looking at, but also the processes of looking. These are various, of course, from watching movies on public screens or phones to contemplating life in front you, how you know or react to Panh’s story, his memories and his losses. Like his other documentaries S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine and Duch, Master of the Forges of Hell, The Missing Picture remembers the about the genocide in Cambodia, but here the focus is his early childhood, smells of caramel and mangoes, his first recollection of the Khmer Rouge, entering Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, the displacement, disappearance, and murder of millions, including members of Panh’s family.
The film notes here the absence of images for these brutalities, by showing the pictures created to stand in, to serve as reality, to convince viewers of what they see. “So many pictures that go by in the world, again and again,” the narrator observes, “We think we own them because we’ve seen them. When we discover a picture on the screen that is neither painting nor shroud, then it is not missing.” But yet Panh’s film insists, pictures go missing, lost in the distance of fading memory, repressed in efforts to survive trauma, rearranged to make order out of insanity.
The Missing Picture makes clear the ordering, in images of dolls being carved and positioned, sometimes juxtaposed with footage—villagers making their way along rural roads, children at play, adults bent in rice paddies—and sometimes embodying Panh’s reminiscence in their very stillness. When his father decides to oppose the Kampuchean Revolution by refusing to eat, he recalls, as a child Panh was afraid and upset. The doll of his father lies back on a mat, still, dying, you know, though you can’t possibly see.
“I resent him,” Panh says, even as he also remembers his mother, not crying when his body is carried to a pit. That night, “She tells me how my father should have been buried,” Panh says, “This funeral in words I don’t want to forget, it is an act of resistance.” The pictures his mother makes with words, the resistance they constitute, become his own, and so, he recalls too his unexpected interest in filmmaking (dolls with cameras appear on a movie set, actor dolls are dressed in historical costumes), his conscious decisions to recreate, to make visible what he’s seen, and also, to show how what he’s seen can never be visible precisely as he saw it.
That is, the dolls indicate bodies and brutality, near death and resurrection, pain and refusal, and also, a kind of embrace. The missing picture cannot be found or possessed, but it can be described and imagined, it can help to make sense of chaos. While the closing credits of The Missing Picture begin to roll over photos of the filmmakers leaning over models, arranging dolls, they close on another diorama, dolls gathered in a city street, dressed in bright colors, playing instruments, singing, and listening. It’s a dolls’ scene as different from the others as it could be, a fantasy of a reality, life reconceived.