Review: L’image manquante (2013)

August 12, 2014 § Leave a comment

The recent release of L’image manquante (2013) seems somewhat prescient in retrospect, with two top Khmer Rouge leaders finally sentenced to life in prison a few days ago. Justice may not reach everyone, but it did reach the two surviving leaders, even if it has been three and half decades since the end of that regime.

Rithy Panh’s film is poetic, difficult to watch, and has the intimacy of an old friend who, having long restrained the memories of his past, is finally giving you a window into his psyche. Narrating his childhood — Panh was eleven when the Khmer Rouge expelled him and his family from Phnom Penh — he also reconstructs the events of the genocide.

Half of the film is comprised of archival footage, the other half of painstakingly handmade clay figures. The effect is somehow precious and childlike, but the temporal dissonance between the moving picture frames and the wooden figures — their visages sometimes placid, sometimes frozen into gaunt screams — is uncomfortable and uncanny. Time and history seems to move forward, but not for the victims. Their woodenness suggests desensitization to the violence, dehumanization, and traumatic immobility. As Panh says, when all one has is black clothes and a spoon, how can one revolt?

Clay is also the material of death. Thousands of victims were buried within the mud, discovered years later when shovels came upon skull and bone. Thus, even while animating and giving life to the people of his past, Panh never ceases to relinquish the fact of their inevitable end. The documentary’s closing scenes, when the artist buries his figurines, covering clay with clay, is a funereal ritual that attempts to settle the ghosts of his past.

L’image manquante joins several other recent documentaries dealing with traumatic memory and conflict by laying bare the filmic medium. Like the animated documentary Waltz with Bashir (2008), it suggests that self-conscious creative artifice can help to apprehend the workings of personal and collective memory surrounding an incomprehensible event.

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