Wednesday, February 19, 2014

[film] "The Missing Picture"

This film has stuck in my mind. It is about this Cambodian geezer Rithy Panh looking back over his childhood during the years of rule by the Khmer Rouge, those crazy fun-loving communists who embarked on one of history's most bizarre reigns of terror. Mr Panh (or Mr Rithy as it might be) was one of the people who was forced out of Cambodia's cities when the Khmer Rouge took over. He was then sent to a rural area where he and his family lived in slave-like conditions as starvation gripped them.

The presentation of the story is highly unusual. Panh does not dramatise his childhood with actors or present the narrative as a conventional documentary, with the camera panning over the gulag he called home or the fields in which he toiled while a variety of talking heads tell us all about the wacky Khmer Rouge. Instead everything is presented through unmoving clay figures and model dioramas of the situations under discussion. The camera moves across these model scenes and landscapes but the figures in them are static. Combined with the deadpan narration, the effect is deliberately distancing, lacking the pornography of horror we often get to enjoy with narratives of awful experience. The only moving images are taken from footage made by the Khmer Rouge themselves. These fall into two categories: newsreels of the Khmer Rouge leadership and clips from propaganda films made by the regime. Excerpts from a Khmer Rouge film depicting the struggle against the US occupiers suggest that their film industry was run by people who would have dismissed Fatal Deviation as too slick and polished.

For me the one moment where the mask of detachment slipped was when they played the song 'Jam 10 Kai Theit' by Ros Sereysothea (later recorded as 'New Year's Eve' by Dengue Fever). Ros Sereysothea was a popular singer in Cambodia; like most of her kind she was exterminated by the Khmer Rouge. As I have often said, there is something terribly sad about the uplifting sounds of pre-KR pop music from Cambodia and the terrible fate its practitioners met when the communists seized power. Perhaps because the emotion in Ros Sereysothea's voice contrasted so much with the detachment of the narration, her song triggered a strong emotional response in a way that the rest of the film did not.

As you know, the Khmer Rouge were led by Pol Pot, the Brother Number One. He had started life as Saloth Sar and spent time as a student in Paris, where he studied under Louis Althusser and was active in left wing circles. I do not think he was considered particularly remarkable then, as there were so many other earnest young men in Paris who dreamed of sweeping away the bad old world and building something new and better. I suspect that many people who knew him in Paris would have been surprised and aghast at the horrors he unleashed in his homeland. But when I think of that, I think of my own friends in the world of the far left, and I wonder which of them had it in themselves to become Ireland's Pol Pot had the dice rolled differently here. There is no way of knowing, and I bet it's not the ones you think.

image source (a review of the film by Daniel Kasman)

Dengue Fever 'New Year's Eve'

An inuit panda production; this post appeared in issue 138 of Frank's APA.

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