Words: Brody Rossiter
OUT OF FOCUS
Today an abundance mediated sources saturate our daily lives. From the application loaded smartphone in your pocket, to the perpetual uncertainties of round-the-clock rolling news, such an influx of words and pictures has perhaps resulted in a level of complacency when regarding the true importance of an image.
The pictures broadcast upon television screens and pasted between lines of text have not only documented the history of the human race but shaped it – the impact of certain shocking images resulting in worldwide vows to ensure such heinous acts are never repeated. Would we truly understand the horrors of the Holocaust without the devastating imagery which so often accompanies the textbook passages and televisual reminders? As the survivors pass and first hand accounts disappear, having access to such visual materials is invaluable.
During Pol Pot’s four year leadership around twenty-five percent (an estimated one to three million citizens) of Cambodia’s population died due to mass malnutrition, lack of medicines, and the torture which surfaced under the guise of the dictator’s ‘social engineering’. Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh has striven to strip the dictator of his grim spotlight and place the focus upon the individuals who toiled under his reign. Though the harrowing images of thousands of skulls stacked rows deep upon rickety wooden shelters race to mind when considering the Cambodian genocide, a lack of photographic evidence has resulted in a Panh utilising an unusual form of visual storytelling – namely the use of several hand carved clay figurines as lead protagonists.
The Missing Picture is an exercise in regression for Panh, a soul-searching device used to journey back into his stricken homeland in an attempt to exorcise the demons he has carried since childhood. Panh’s narration (spoken in French by Randal Douc) recalls the war which gripped the country and led to the mass deportation of the city of Phnom Penh. Millions were forced from their homes and condemned to both live upon and work the unforgiving rural expanses. Rare archival footage and propaganda juxtaposes the poignant still shots featuring the figurines. Footage taken from a helicopter depicts the abandoned urban sprawl left to rack and ruin – a solemn precursor of the fate awaiting its absent inhabitants.
We witness how individuals were rounded up like cattle, stripped of their autonomy, and homogenised into a characterless machine focused upon farming and resource production, while Pol Pot triumphantly stormed a city ridden of life. The combination of both forms of visual storytelling slowly builds a solemn and deeply affecting picture of 1970’s Cambodia; a landscape void of all emotion and saddled with hunger and thirst in the name of false prophets, revolution and purity.
The Missing Picture is a unique and often distressing portrait of a people racing to their own destruction. Its tonal tranquillity reinforces the depiction of a voiceless country stagnating while much of the world flourishes. Never is this more apparent than when our narrator recalls witnessing how “The Americans” launched the Apollo 13 space expedition before lamenting how the thorn strewn ground would tear at his bare teenage feet while he worked.
Slow and deliberate in its delivery, The Missing Picture appears as though it were a lucid dream, or more aptly a collective nightmare, brought to life several centuries ago. The naturalistic score of windswept paddy fields and native instrumentation proves deeply immersive while the necessary but nevertheless unique use of inanimate models becomes invaluable in relaying Panh’s emotive message. The models grow gaunt, and the story more painful, but ultimately it is a tale that upon finishing, you realise not only needed to be somehow told, but also endure. Rithy Panh’s intention was to tell the story of his people and his lost family and friends, in doing so he has also provided a distinctive and heart-rending tribute to those who lost their lives and those who survived to see their sacrifice find its place amongst history’s pictures.