What is your miss­ing picture?

It is a rare treat in our times of dig­i­tal infor­ma­tion and image over­load to find visu­al sto­ries that add mean­ing in our quest to nego­ti­ate real­i­ties and truths.

The Miss­ing Pic­ture, a recent film by Cam­bo­di­an-born and French-edu­cat­ed direc­tor Rithy Panh, is one of those treats. Accord­ing to Barthes in Cam­era Luci­da, Gus­tav Janouch once said to Kaf­ka "The nec­es­sary con­di­tion for an image is sight." Kaf­ka replied: "We pho­to­graph things in order to dri­ve them out of our minds. My sto­ries are a way of shut­ting my eyes." (Barthes 53)

Rithy Panh’s sto­ry does both. How­ev­er, it is not the sight per se but rather val­ues, con­nec­tion and engage­ment with past and present that dri­ve his sto­ry out of his mind. He cre­ates the “miss­ing pic­ture” of the “miss­ing picture(s)” to take his sto­ry out and, as he says in the film’s nar­ra­tion, to “hand it over to you”. He cre­ates and con­tests his own expe­ri­enced truths with those cre­at­ed by diverse his­to­ries, pol­i­tics or cul­tures. These include dif­fer­ent real­i­ties he wit­nessed as a young boy in Cam­bo­dia of the 60s, a teenag­er dur­ing the tragedy of the 70s and now, an almost 50 year old man, as a film­mak­er, his­to­ri­an and edu­ca­tor. Many years ago, Rithy Panh decid­ed to use the pic­ture to try to make sense of things that often do not make sense, such as over three decades of on-going yet inter­mit­tent con­flict and its con­se­quences for con­tem­po­rary Cam­bo­dia. The visu­al has become a vehi­cle to con­nect and recon­nect, learn, relearn and…teach. Today, he cre­ates and func­tions between cul­tures, lan­guages and pol­i­tics. This time, Rithy Panh skill­ful­ly places the quest for miss­ing picture(s) in our own minds to start our own enquiry into the ques­tion: how many pic­tures have we lost or will con­tin­ue miss­ing? Even when pic­tures con­stant­ly are being taken…

This Miss­ing Pic­ture, run­ning just over 90 min­utes, is an auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal doc­u­men­tary on thoughts, mem­o­ries and pic­tures of Cam­bo­dia, of the director’s per­son­al expe­ri­ence as a boy and now, as a visu­al sto­ry­teller. It is a visu­al dia­logue involv­ing sim­ple, yet com­pli­cat­ed, clay fig­ures that are metic­u­lous­ly and con­tin­u­ous­ly hand sculpt­ed in front of our eyes. These are jux­ta­posed and con­verse with archival footage of Cambodia’s dark past with Rithy Panh pro­vid­ing a very per­son­al nar­ra­tion. This cre­ates a visu­al poem and tes­ti­mo­ny of Cambodia’s past, present and future, which is shaped by the pres­ence and absence of mem­o­ries and realities.

The Miss­ing Pic­ture deals with per­son­al, nation­al and glob­al pol­i­tics of injus­tice using the con­cept of the miss­ing pic­ture as an alle­go­ry. As a per­son­al mem­o­ry, it is like the lost fam­i­ly album, which acts as metaphor for a lost child­hood. The use of the hand-craft­ed clay fig­ures recon­structs that pic­ture, that album, that loss. It allows for self-reflec­tion, con­nec­tion with lost self, moments, fam­i­lies and thoughts. It is a process of look­ing for the boy once lost and the lost boy look­ing for the man today. The Miss­ing Pic­ture is pos­si­bly where the two meet.

It is fas­ci­nat­ing to observe this process, which is unlike the fam­i­ly album, where images often dic­tate real­i­ties, inter­pre­ta­tions and mem­o­ries. On the con­trary, mem­o­ries and today’s expe­ri­ence help to recon­struct the pic­ture, the album and con­nec­tion. This per­son­al mem­o­ry quest is part­ly cre­at­ed through clay fig­ures of the direc­tor him­self, his father, broth­er, moth­er as well as mem­bers of the com­mu­ni­ty and the nation in con­flict. Sig­nif­i­cant­ly, one of the most impor­tant actors of that time, Pol Pot, is also includ­ed. The very per­son­al touch, the punc­tum of this pic­ture, is a com­bi­na­tion of the beau­ti­ful process of craft­ing those whim­si­cal fig­ures while danc­ing with the emo­tion­al, philo­soph­i­cal nar­ra­tive. Watch­ing care­ful hands sculpt­ing those tiny fig­ures, one sees and, in some way, becomes part of the mem­o­ry con­test­ing one’s own at the same time.

The Miss­ing Pic­ture is also a metaphor for miss­ing his­tor­i­cal records. The Khmer Rouge appar­ent­ly took pic­tures of count­less exe­cu­tions they con­duct­ed between 1975 and 1979, but this mate­r­i­al has nev­er been found . This film, in its own way, is search­ing for those records by incor­po­rat­ing archival mate­ri­als that did sur­vive, includ­ing fas­ci­nat­ing pro­pa­gan­da footage cre­at­ed by the Khmer Rouge regime. At the same time, the clay fig­urines and the emo­tion­al nar­ra­tion fill in the void left by those still miss­ing Khmer Rouge documents.

Final­ly, the Miss­ing Pic­ture refers to the feel­ings of despair, dehu­man­iza­tion and injus­tice Rithy Panh felt, wit­nessed and expe­ri­enced, as well as dis­ap­point­ment from the lack of con­nec­tion with and sup­port from the out­side world at the time. Even when the atroc­i­ties of the Khmer Rouge were occa­sion­al­ly visu­al­ly com­mu­ni­cat­ed to the out­side, they failed to engage with the 13 year old, who lost almost every­thing and every­body. And it was that con­nec­tion, a quest for human­i­ty, that was miss­ing not only by that boy, but by the nation caught up in the geo-pol­i­tics of the Cold War at the time. Con­se­quent­ly, Rithy Panh has been look­ing for, archiv­ing and tak­ing those miss­ing pic­tures ever since as an act of jus­tice and remem­brance; an attempt to make sense of pol­i­tics that make no sense.
The Miss­ing Pic­ture is the filmmaker’s quest for jus­tice for the boy he once was and the gen­er­a­tions of Cam­bo­di­ans in the past, present and future who suf­fer from utopi­an ideas, pol­i­tics and sub­jec­tion to the pow­ers of oth­ers. The film demands search for the miss­ing pic­ture, pic­tures that con­nect, engage, doc­u­ment, and tes­ti­fy as com­mu­ni­ca­tion for human­i­ty. Accord­ing to Rithy, as he says in the film: “There is no truth, there is only cin­e­ma. The rev­o­lu­tion is cin­e­ma”. Con­nec­tion through the cin­e­ma is what he gives to the child, to him­self and to Cam­bo­di­an jus­tice. It also gives con­nec­tion to us so we can con­tin­ue the quest for the miss­ing pic­tures to scru­ti­nize our own truths and con­tin­ue search­ing for those impor­tant ones that add mean­ing rather than take it away. These are pic­tures that force us to ask ques­tions and keep us account­able and con­nect­ed. It may mean search­ing among the bil­lion images missed, tak­en and imposed upon us every day by “feel­ing them when look­ing away or when clos­ing our eyes”, as Barthes (2000: 53) sug­gests and Rithy Panh does.

Film infor­ma­tion:

96min, France/Cambodia
Direc­tor: Rithy Panh
Pro­duc­tion: Cather­ine Dussart
Copro­duc­tion: CDP, ARTE France, Bophana Production
Screen­play: Christo­pher Bataille & Rithy Panh (based on Rithy Panh's auto­bi­og­ra­phy writ­ten by both Bataille & Panh, The Elim­i­na­tion: The Elim­i­na­tion: A sur­vivor of the Khmer Rouge con­fronts his past and the com­man­dant of the killing fields, Clerken­well Press, 2013)
Voice: Ran­dal Douc
Music: Marc Marder
Sculp­tor: Sarith Mang
Release dates: 3 Jan­u­ary 2014 (UK), Antic­i­pat­ed March 2014 (USA)

Works Cit­ed:

Barthes, Roland. Cam­era Luci­da, Reflec­tions on Pho­tog­ra­phy. Lon­don: Vin­tage, 2000. Print.

Image Note:

Fig 1. “The Miss­ing Pic­ture” Movie Poster, cour­tesy of the UK based dis­trib­u­tor New Wave Cin­e­ma, http://​www​.newwave​films​.co​.uk and Rithy Panh

Review­er Disclosure:

This review is total­ly biased. I have been play­ing the visu­al game in Cam­bo­dia for almost five years. Rithy Panh’s work and the Bophana Audio­vi­su­al Resource Cen­ter was my per­son­al and often pro­fes­sion­al refuge. Every time things stopped mak­ing sense while wit­ness­ing the arro­gance and igno­rance where the visu­al often con­tin­ued to vio­late, I would go to Bophana. I spent hours there, occa­sion­al­ly chat­ting with Rithy. I would go there to find “my” pic­ture again and again.

Maria Cieszews­ka-Wong: is an inde­pen­dent socio-visu­al spe­cial­ist. She spe­cial­izes in redefin­ing func­tions of visu­al process­es, espe­cial­ly par­tic­i­pa­to­ry visu­al approach­es, as a research and crit­i­cal and ana­lyt­i­cal approach in con­tem­po­rary post­colo­nial cul­tures. She has col­lab­o­rat­ed and con­tin­ues to col­lab­o­rate with such insti­tu­tions as: Roy­al Trop­i­cal Insti­tute (KIT, Nether­lands), Oxfam, dif­fer­ent UN Agen­cies, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Inter­na­tionale Zusam­me­nar­beit (GIZ) GmbH, dif­fer­ent gov­ern­ment min­istries (Cam­bo­dia, Viet­nam, Poland) and num­ber of oth­er nation­al and inter­na­tion­al orga­ni­za­tions, knowl­edge and cul­tur­al insti­tutes in SE Asia, Europe and Cana­da. While based in Cam­bo­dia (2007 -2012) she fund­ed and direct­ed a small visu­al research enter­prise with Cam­bo­di­an partners.

She is now based in Ams­ter­dam where she found­ed MCW Socio-Visu­al Research and Con­sult­ing. Maria is cur­rent­ly devel­op­ing a glob­al research Imag­in­ing Devel­op­ment (work­ing title) to exam­ine func­tions of par­tic­i­pa­to­ry visu­al approach­es in inter­na­tion­al devel­op­ment. She is an active mem­ber of the Inter­na­tion­al Visu­al Soci­ol­o­gy Association.