The man behind ‘The Missing Picture’

Cambodian director Rithy Panh creates a memoir of 1970s Cambodia using clay figurines to help tell a somber story.

March 25, 2015 21:12
The man behind ‘The Missing Picture’

The man behind ‘The Missing Picture’. (photo credit: LUCAS JACKSON / REUTERS)


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‘The Ten Commandments,” replied Rithy Panh, director of The Missing Picture, an innovative Oscar-nominated documentary about how he survived the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia, when asked what movie he thought about most during the years he worked under brutal conditions in forced labor camps.

A glitzy Hollywood Bible epic might seem a strange choice for a Cambodian boy fighting for his life to focus on, but Panh explained: “I saw only a few films before the Khmer Rouge [came to power]...I would imagine [the movie] in my head, I wanted to see the color. It’s not the best film in history, but there were a lot of horses, they would run, run, run.”

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Panh is in Israel as a guest of the Screen Arts Department, Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, Jerusalem, to speak at screenings of The Missing Picture, a French-Cambodian co-production, at the Mauboussin French Film Festival at the cinematheques in Jerusalem, Haifa, Tel Aviv, Sderot, Herzliya and Holon, which runs until the end of the month.

Bezalel is holding a symposium on Panh’s work with the title, “Rithy Panh – a tribute,” in which his collaborator on the screenplay, Christophe Bataille, will also participate, and which will include a panel discussion.

A retrospective of Panh’s films will be shown in Israeli cinematheques, and the director will conduct workshops and meet with students studying film and video at Bezalel.

Panh spoke at Mishkenot Sha’ananim the morning before his film was screened at the Jerusalem Cinematheque.

In The Missing Picture, Panh uses clay figurines, as well as archival footage, to tell the story of his experiences at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, and the result is an extraordinarily vivid movie.

Panh spoke in the interview about how he kept his spirit alive while struggling to keep his body alive during the four years of persecution and genocide.

“I would also try to put my own words to melodies of songs from the Sixties, like ‘San Francisco.’ My brother –” an aspiring musician, who was killed along with the rest of Panh’s family in the genocide – “used to sing these songs. I would keep this thing inside of me, when I had a little bit of time. I didn’t want the black and white of the military songs, with their slogans...I would try to find my own, private, intimate song.”

Running The Ten Commandments in his mind “may be the first desire for cinema in my life. It was a way to protect myself, to protest. [During the years of forced labor] I can’t go out and shout on the roof. I had to protest this totalitarian rule in my mind.”

Panh’s father was a teacher and school administrator, who used education to rise above an impoverished upbringing. But to the Khmer Rouge, who overran Phnom Penh after the Americans withdrew from the region, people like Panh’s father – and his entire family – were the enemy. Virtually the whole population of Phnom Penh was marched into the countryside and forced to work under grueling conditions. Approximately two million Cambodians – about a quarter of the total population – died over the next four years, from 1975- 1979, of starvation and beatings.

Panh escaped to Thailand in 1979 and lived in a refugee camp, then made his way to Paris, where he studied film at the Institut des Hautes Etudes Cinematographiques. He lives in Paris, but spends about half the year now in Cambodia, where he runs Bophana: Audio-visual Resource Center – Cambodia.

Panh said he was happy to be in Israel, and that he saw kindred spirits in other groups who had suffered genocide, such as Jews and Rwandans.

“I did many films about the memory of the Khmer Rouge genocide...There is a lot of fight over that word, but I don’t mind. Genocide is not only killing, it’s also the destruction of identity...It’s very difficult for us. It’s not an honor to use that word. No one wants to say they are survivor of genocide. I’ve spent many years trying to explain it but we can’t completely explain it.”

Panh has made many documentaries, all about Cambodia, among them S21: The Khmer Rouge Death Machine, but The Missing Picture is the first time he has told his own story.

The inspiration for using figurines, which are inexplicably evocative, to tell his story, came after he visited his childhood home for the first time since he and his family were expelled from it. He had been back to Cambodia many times – he now spends about half his time there, the other half in Paris – but it took longer for him to seek out the building where he and his family had lived.

“I had to go back to my home. I discovered my home had changed and I asked my assistant to produce a small model of my home as I remembered it...And then I asked him to sculpt a small guy to represent me. The assistant wanted to know if it should be out of wood or what material, and I told him to take clay.”

Through the use of clay figurines – which he filmed but did not animate – made from the wet soil from a riverbed, “I found an idea how to tell my story.” The clay itself is a powerful metaphor. The assistant didn’t bake the figurines, so they were fragile and impermanent.

A great deal of Panh’s forced labor was spent shoveling dirt, so the substance was especially fitting.

“It’s very lovely to hold this figurine in your hand,” he said. He also felt it was appropriate to have these figurines representing his family and friends who died, rather than an actor or actress in reenactments. “It’s something I can cherish. It’s a handmade creation.”

Another reason for using the figurines is that so few photographs and films of the genocide survive, although the Khmer Rouge did make some propaganda films of supposedly happy workers, some of which are shown in the movie.

Many survivors cannot or will not speak about their experiences, and Panh made The Missing Picture with younger generations of Cambodians in mind.

When he screened The Missing Picture before an audience in Long Beach, California, “A young girl come on stage and took the microphone. She said, ‘Thank you, uncle. These images are my missing images. Nobody before told me this story. Thanks for this story. Now I understand where I come from....’ My main objective is not to transmit the pain of this experience to the next generation.”

Panh refers to traditional psychotherapy in the film, but said it has not helped most Cambodian survivors ease their torment, partly because of cultural dissonance, and partly because of the enormity of the trauma.

“These stories will stay with me permanently. It’s here I try to deal with it...this is a tragic story that made me the man I am today. The act of memory is important.

You are giving back to those people their dignity.

That’s what I want...I can’t accept that these people died without names and stories.”

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