I knew Holocaust survivors growing up. There was my cousin Leon, who was my family’s sole survivor, and there were my grandparents’ friends and some of my friends’ parents who ultimately made their way to Canada from the “old country” in the 1950s. These people never talked to me about their experiences in such hell holes as Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen for it was just too painful for them. I remember seeing a number tattoo on the arm of one of my grandmother’s friends. When I asked her about it, she told me that it was her phone number back in Poland. She said that she had it tattooed on her arm so that she wouldn’t forget it. I was only eight years old at the time so what did I know? I believed her.
I first visited Cambodia in 1991, just before the UN arrived to screw up the place. My knowledge of that country’s recent tragic past came from the movie, THE KILLING FIELDS, which I saw seven years before. Until I got there, I didn’t appreciate that it was only 14 years since the Cambodians had emerged from their own hell hole, called Democratic Kampuchea, which was run by the tyrant Pol Pot and enforced by the brutal Khmer Rouge. (Why are countries that have the word “democratic” in their name anything but that?) There was a strange mixture of melancholy, optimism and desperation all around. Unlike my childhood experience, the Cambodians all shared their testimonies with me – and everyone had one. Each night I went back to my hotel room to reflect on what I had heard during the day and to cry. Maybe that’s why my cousin and my grandparents’ friends never wanted to tell me what had happened to them.
When the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, filmmaker Rithy Panh was just one day short of celebrating his 11th birthday. Like all the citizens of Cambodia’s capital city, Panh and his family were marched out of their home at gunpoint with just a suitcase or whatever they could carry on their backs. They were sent to a labour camp in the countryside where all their possessions were stripped from them. Their clothes were even died black because coloured clothing was considered to be impure and corrupt. This was “Year Zero” and the start of four years of indoctrination, hardship, torture, political execution, disease and starvation that resulted in the deaths of an estimated 2 million people – almost one-third of the country’s population.
THE MISSING PICTURE is based on Panh’s memories from that harsh and violent time. Mixing archival footage (propaganda film shot by the Khmer Rouge) with hundreds of hand-carved, hand-painted clay figurines, Panh presents us with a slightly detached yet hauntingly moving account of his own testimony. Rather than using stop-motion animation, the director places these figurines into elaborately detailed dioramas, which his camera zooms in on and pans over as the narrator recounts Panh’s memories. (I watched the English version, which was beautifully narrated by French-Cambodian actor Jean-Baptiste Phou. The French version is narrated by French-Cambodian actor Randal Douc.) No pictures exist that show the dehumanization of his family or his society. (Hence, the film’s title.) As the narrator says, “A picture can be stolen; a thought cannot.” This is very powerful indeed.
But THE MISSING PICTURE is not only a story of a dark time in recent history. It also offers us lessons for today when groups like the Islamic State, Boko Haram, the Taliban and Hamas are growing in strength. If we don’t stand up to tyranny, totalitarianism and intolerance today, we’ll have a world that looks a lot like North Korea tomorrow.
THE MISSING PICTURE won the Cannes Film Festival’s prestigious Un Certain Regard award in 2013 and received Cambodia’s first-ever nomination for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar® in 2014. (It lost out to THE GREAT BEAUTY from Italy.) It will have a limited run at the Broadway Cinematheque starting August 28th.
Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 39:40.)