Cambodian-French filmmaker Rithy Panh must have an inordinate faith in the power of cinema. In bringing it to bear on the subject of the Khmer Rouge and their atrocities, he is trusting to film to engage with one of the most appalling episodes in human history. Cinema is not only capable of documenting history, it can also, when necessary, supplant it. This is the case in Panh’s latest documentary, The Missing Picture (2013), in which Panh declares that “there is no truth. There is only cinema.” This is a sweeping statement, comparable to Godard’s famous assertion that cinema is “truth at twenty-four frames per second.” But for Panh, cinema is something that can surpass truth itself.
A little background on The Missing Picture: it is a documentary about Panh’s experiences as an adolescent in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge regime and about that regime in general. In instances where documentary evidence (film, photographs) of a particular scene does not exist—and this is often the case—then Panh replaces the “missing pictures” with static tableaux made out of carved clay figures. The clay figures are simple but, as Alfred Kazin says of William Blake, not simplistic. They have the paradoxically wide range of depth and expressiveness that one finds in Noh masks. Through them, Panh provides a heartbreaking narrative of Pol Pot’s “Democratic Kampuchea,” under which his life was destroyed and his father, mother, and brothers and sisters all died. Where possible, we are presented with photographs of them, but when these are not available, they are each represented by a little clay figurine which carries with it all the pathos of the human capacity for suffering.
This highly idiosyncratic approach to documentary filmmaking works remarkably well, both in terms of its emotional power and its educational impact. I would compare it favorably to Michel Gondry’s similarly weird documentary, the squiggle-vision-animated Is the Man who is Tall Happy? An Animated Conversation with Noam Chomsky, which is predicated on a gimmick that never really pays off. Which brings me circuitously to one of the many fine points raised in Panh’s film (which is eminently quotable): Panh wonders if the fashionable left-wing intellectuals in Paris who were so taken with Khmer Rouge slogans were “missing a picture” of the starving and enslaved children of Cambodia. He could just as well have been speaking of the American Chomsky, who in 1977 notoriously declared that “the so-called slaughter in Kampuchea is nothing but an invention of the New York Times.” With all due respect to Professor Chomsky: idiot.
The Missing Picture presents a challenge not just to the orthodoxies of the far left but to the concept of orthodoxy in general. Panh says of Khmer Rouge propaganda: “Words change meanings. We speak in slogans.” And when you speak in slogans, or clichés, it typically means that you’ve stopped thinking. This is a threat posed not just by extreme cases like the Khmer Rouge but orthodoxies left and right, from academic liberalism, which its mindless recitation of post-structuralist jargon, to the idiocies of the extreme right, with their talk of personhood for zygotes and “job-creators.” One of the signs that the Isla Vista shooter wasn’t thinking straight—and I admit that there were many of them—but one of them was his tendency to talk in clichés. He complained about girls taunting him with their “cascading blonde hair.” He claimed the day before the massacre that “tomorrow, I will be a god.” First off, hair doesn’t cascade in real life. You’re not talking about anybody’s actual hair, you’re talking about the abstract idea of hair, and abstractions rarely correspond to reality. As for becoming a god, you can tell by the way he says it that he doesn’t believe it. He just says it because he thinks it’s the sort of thing one says under those circumstances. Abstraction has replaced real life and cliché has replaced actual thought.
But to return to Rithy Panh’s film. It is the third film of his that I’ve seen, after S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2003) and Duch, Master of the Forges of Hell (2012). As the titles suggest, these are grim explorations of grim subjects, but in these films, and especially in The Missing Picture, Panh maintains a moral courage and a deep human compassion that make them essential viewing for anyone seeking to engage with the problem of the human capacity for evil. The Missing Picture is a welcome addition to his oeuvre.