The Missing Picture is an ambitious and daring film that came out recently, directed and written by Rithy Panh, a survivor of the Killing Fields in Cambodia. Sight and Sound Magazine has a great write-up by Robert Greene of the film and its meaning for our audiences today. This may be important because some may question Panh's aesthetic choice of using simple clay figurines to tell the story while juxtaposed alongside found-footage that turns out to be from Khmer Rouge propaganda.
The aesthetic premise is that the motionless clay statues "create dioramic scenes of happiness, atrocity and poetic expression. The result is at once limited and brutally effective in communicating the emotional stasis of memory and the dehumanisation that comes from the ruthless enforcement of pure ideology."
As an artist, and one who works in speculative poetry, I find the choice compelling and intriguing at many levels. As Robert Greene points out:
"The Missing Picture is about the cathartic power of confronting the darkest corners of human experience through film. The ‘missing pictures’ were destroyed as part of a grand, horrible lie, and the thorough excavation of these stolen memories must happen before anyone can move on."For Lao who survived the Secret War, where so much of our history was buried, where we found so much of our lives and our interior landscape devastated by the conflict, a film like this should resonate with us. It reminds me to a degree of the heartbreak in Souvankham Thammavongsa's Found, centered on her father's discarded notebook filled with memories and experiences from the years in the refugee camp that he never talked about.
Granted, I find that many Lao would be challenged by the idea of presenting such a notion. Even in a film like Thavisouk Phrasavath's Nerakhoon, the efforts to tell the Lao story are often hampered by non-Lao support, despite the best of intentions. The results have been artistically rich, but often lack the strange, some might say weird humor the Lao have kept for centuries to address the various calamities of the day. It's hard for us to stay serious for long, without a non-Lao artist in the background on projects like this. It's hard to keep from laughing even as we're addressing the chaos that defined our country for the last three centuries, and particularly the last one.
Greene calls it when he notes:
"The missing pictures, recreated in clay, are unreal and representational, while the old footage stands in as the official, accepted ‘reality’. That this reality turns out to be Khmer Rouge propaganda, and therefore even phonier than the dioramas, becomes one of the film’s central tragedies."
In my own work on a number of projects to confront the Lao Diaspora, I, too had considered creating works that stood in for the photographs we lost, the stories unwritten, the poems unsung. There is something corrosive about what is used to articulate the reality of the past in the present in many things I've run into, where I've had little recourse but to retreat even further into the past and into the fantastic to speak more freely of the recent present, and the roots of our community's current crisis.
I can see many of our other writers, too are following suit. We cannot have what many others have. Where are the books, the photos, the films, the many ways our culture has been expressed and passed on? There are still so many things too sensitive to discuss that we seem a long way from a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. And perhaps because most Lao have great contempt for participating in the Atrocity Olympics, a notion of trying to one-up one another in terms of who had it worse, it's just as well. But there are still fundamental things we need to shore up with the mortar of expression, the bricks of memory. Will we build clay dioramas, video games, a play of kung fu zombies and cannibals? I have my suspicions, but we'll see.