In making I Served the King of England, Menzel had this advantage over Anderson: he lived through some of the history he showed. The author of his source novel, Bohumil Hrabal, had the terrible luck to have lived through all of it. I don’t say this to belittle Anderson, a wonderful artist to whom I owe some of my best movie experiences of the past years; nor would I disparage the desire to think one’s way into the lives of people in other times. Even when that project entails a bit of pilferage, with the moral coin of suffering making its way, unearned, into the wrong pockets, I think it’s much better to acknowledge past horrors than to ignore them—especially these days, when entire polemical industries are devoted to denying that anything bad happened at all. Still, I’m bothered when an overabundance of surface effects (again, I think of Jonathan Safran Foer) covers up a ringingly hollow purpose, containing very little except authorial will.
So I turn for contrast to the new documentary by Rithy Panh, The Missing Picture, which carries with it such a burden of personal and collective pain, and bears reliable witness to such a huge historical crime, that I’m almost ashamed to add that it’s inventive, imaginative, beautiful and at times even charming.
Born in Phnom Penh in 1964, and forced at age 13 into a Khmer Rouge slave labor camp where he saw his family die, one by one, Panh has previously made strong but fairly straightforward films about the Pol Pot regime. Perhaps the best known is S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine [see Klawans, “Band of Insiders,” June 7, 2004], which foreshadowed Joshua Oppenheimer’s method in The Act of Killing by having the murderers re-enact their deeds on-site. From S21, you could have known that Panh is an elegantly thoughtful filmmaker who respects both the trace of reality in photographic evidence and its mute incompleteness. You would not, however, have been able to predict the flood of imagery (the metaphor is Panh’s) that hits you in the face in The Missing Picture, nor the pathos with which he substitutes intimate, handmade scenes for realities too large or too awful to represent.
One last incongruity of scale for present purposes, one last confrontation with the inexpressible: in The Missing Picture, Panh re-creates his life in the Khmer Rouge camps through the use of painted dioramas, populated by innumerable carved clay figures small enough to fit in your hand. It’s a toy genocide, complete with little boxcars and tumbrils for the victims, barracks, machine guns, loudspeakers, dogs, water buffalo, bicycles, flags and cooking pots (not that there’s much to cook). Interspersed with these images of dolls being worked and starved to death are segments of Khmer Rouge propaganda films showing the glorious leap forward of Democratic Kampuchea. Look closely at the footage, as the film’s narrator observes in voiceover, and you will see facts that don’t support the slogans—wraithlike children staggering under the weight of their labor, for example—but were inadvertently memorialized all the same. In the film’s language, these pictures are not missing. The dioramas, on the other hand, testify to experiences for which the pictures are absent, or rather exist only in Rithy Panh’s memories—memories that he would like to get rid of by showing them to you.
But that’s only half the story. Panh also has missing pictures that he cherishes: scenes that he re-created because he wishes he could go back and dwell in them. These are his recollections of the family house in Phnom Penh, with schoolwork at the kitchen table, dinners in the courtyard with the aunts and cousins, and rock-and-roll dance parties where his brother played guitar.
I don’t think it’s too much to say that Panh’s loyalty to this lost world of childhood is something he shares with Wes Anderson. Both of them are drawn to the emotions of a vanished boyhood, which they see as idyllic and doomed. Both dramatize adult situations through methods that accord with a child’s feelings. The difference between The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Missing Picture is that Anderson retrojects his reveries of childhood into a Ruritanian neverland, whereas Panh carries his forward into the Cambodian nightmare he was actually forced to endure.
And if you didn’t know Panh’s biography? You would still recognize The Missing Picture, for all its fancifulness, as the real thing. It begins its US theatrical run this month, at New York City’s Film Forum and elsewhere.