We are limited. We are limited in how much we can endure; how much we can depict; how much we can feel. There is a futility in trying to break beyond those bonds because while it would nice and uplifting if we could go always surpass our limitations, then there would be no such thing as limitations. Rithy Panh’s The Missing Pictures explores the limits of human suffering, the limits of depicting that suffering, and the limits of our empathy when witnessing those depictions. This deeply personal film melds textbook history and a first-person account into a story that can only be brought out of the earth, painted, and stand for a record that was either lost or never existed in the first place.
Panh recounts his experience* as a victim of the Khmer Rogue’s genocide in Cambodia in 1975. The director uses clay figures and dioramas to tell his story along with propaganda footage from Pol Pot’s regime. The clay figures must stand in for the “missing picture” because there’s no cinematic evidence depicting the suffering Panh and his fellow Cambodians experienced. The only footage that remains is propaganda. The clay figures and their miniature settings not only represent events, but also those who were slaughtered. The victims have now returned to the dirt, and so clay figures made from the Earth are the closest the director can come to telling their stories and his own story of how he watched his family and countrymen die. A cold, distant narrator provides not only Panh’s own story but also the historic record, and both narratives are rendered in poetic words.
The clay figures are a perfect symbol for what Panh is trying to convey. It not only is an attempt to honor those who died, but also the limits of trying to tell their story. The Khmer Rouge dehumanized everyone who suffered, and so clay figures may as well stand in for humans. The clay figures don’t breathe. They barely emote. And the dioramas are the best thing the artist an do to convey his painful memories because no cinematic record exists. Pahn’s picture reminds us that just as his clay figures have limits of expression, so does the medium of film. As we see at the opening of the movie, there are canisters upon canisters of decayed film, covered in dirt. And even if that film can be salvaged and run through a projector, it will only show the propaganda created by the Khmer Rouge.
No matter the depiction, the emotions never carry over to the audience, and that seems intentional. The emotionless narration combined with the clay figures leaves us removed from the Khmer Rouge’s brutality. As a mature audience, we have become desensitized to such pain. Even if it were an emotionally devastating picture, the effect would be temporary as opposed to Panh’s permanent trauma. At most, we would be pained for a few hours, perhaps a few days, and then we’d go on with our lives. Our empathy is already limited, so why pretend like we can share in Panh’s attempt at catharsis? We can bear witness, we can understand, but if we ever experienced anything close to his hellish youth, we wouldn’t be watching his movie.
The film is filled with horror stories, and none of them reach us. In a matter-of-fact tone, the narrator tells us about a child who condemned his mother for a minor crime, and their captors proceeded to take her away, and she was never seen again. The indoctrination that can push a child to such a heinous act and the regime that fosters such behavior should shock us to our core. But even if we try to throw ourselves into Panh’s story, we can’t. There is a barrier. There is a limit.
Futility overwhelms the picture to the point of exhaustion. At some point, all suffering blends together. Even clay figures of children soaring through the heavens show the futility of trying to find peace for murdered innocents. It’s a nice concept, and it’s the closest the picture can come to any sense of solace: clay figures “flying” in front of a rear-projected sky. But it does provide a stark contrast to the Khmer Rouge’s footage and the narrator cynically repeating the regime’s propaganda. We can’t miss the irony that the childlike dioramas are more honest than the live-action film.
With The Missing Picture, we can look, but not touch. We can glibly say the old line, “It’s man’s inhumanity’s to man,” but this line will almost certainly come from someone who never experienced the line’s full meaning first hand. Panh doesn’t owe us an emotional explanation. It’s not about garnering our sympathy. It’s about a filmmaker using his art form to try and come to grips with his shocking past. Plenty of films are about personal experience, but this one is rooted in ineffable horror. To provide a letter grade would feel incredibly disrespectful to Panh’s trauma. Film criticism has its limits.
*Or at least the experience of a narrator that who speaks for him or speaks for an amalgam of others; for the purpose of this review, I will assume these are Panh’s experiences.
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