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​.newwavefilms​.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.