Oscars entry reflects victims’ tales of Cambodian genocide

A still from The Missing Picture

A still from The Missing Picture

Oscars entry reflects victims’ tales of Cambodian genocide

06 March 2014

By Naomi Canton

“I don’t think the Oscars mean anything,” said Andrew Johnston, a PhD candidate at SOAS, London, speaking at the Q and A discussion after the screening of The Missing Picture at Asia House.

Rithy Panh’s moving film was Cambodia’s entry to the Oscars 2014 and it was one of five nominees in the Best Foreign Language Film section. But it was beaten by Italy’s The Great Beauty.

It was screened on Wednesday, 5 March, 2014 to a packed hall.

Using clay figurines and archive footage from the 1975-1979 period, it relays the Cambodian director Rithy Panh’s own experiences of the Khmer Rouge regime, in which his entire family was expelled from Phnom Penh in 1975 and subsequently died in rural labour camps.

Nick Bradshaw, Web Editor for Sight & Sound, said: “I interviewed Rithy Panh a few months ago and he kept coming back to this tension between the act of testimony in the film (that he needs to bear witness to his own life in this case) but at the same time he wants to be a film director and make cinema and not just film as a record.

“The use of figurines and archive footage did make it fascinating,” he said. “I always think about Team America: World Police by the South Park creators but this is the diametric opposite of that. These figurines are very minimalist and they don’t speak; they come from earth and represent renewal, reincarnation and resistance,” he said.

“I have interviewed victims of the regime and what came through the film was what I have heard countless times from the victims,” said Johnston, who has conducted about 100 interviews with perpetrators and victims of the regime.

“The food issue was of most importance. During that time currency was abolished and the currency used was rice,” Johnston said. “They had to produce three tonnes per hectare and if they did not, they had to pay in another currency and that was invariably blood. To gain favour with their Khmer Rouge superiors, low-level cadres often gave abundance to their superiors to make it look like they had an abundance of food. That is one of the reasons why so many people died. It’s so much easier to kill someone who no longer looks like someone you can empathise with – if they are emaciated and dressed in the same clothes,” he added.

He explained that the Khmer Rouge divided people into different social groups: the agricultural proletariat and the “new people” from the towns. The Khmer Rouge idolised the peasantry and denounced urban dwellers and evacuees or “evil new people” for not helping the social revolution and branded them capitalists who consumed without contributing. Thousands of urbanites were displaced from cities and moved to village where they were made to farm. “All social problems were pinned on these people,” Johnston said. “People almost killed without impunity because there was no law. For most people the only communication they were having with the centre was the slogans – they were not very well-educated and they had axes to grind in society,” he added.

According to Johnston, China did not feel that Pol Pot was ready for the social revolution. “Initially the Chinese funded them quite heavily but they switched between Cambodia and Vietnam as both provided stockpiles of rice to fund the industrial revolution in China,” he said.

At least 20 per cent of the population are estimated to have died during the Khmer Rouge Regime which ruled Cambodia for just four years.

“Pol Pot could not have stopped them if he wanted to as there was so much hatred and low level killing. Low-level cadres were killed if they did not meet quotas,” Johnston said.

“It’s so important we are still able to listen to these people’s stories,” he continued. “An entire generation of filmmakers has disappeared in Cambodia and now there is a capitalist drive there. They would rather put Hollywood films on in the cinemas so it is hard to convince someone in Cambodia to see this. It is going to take time to create that market again because these films only attract a western market and a niche one at that. At one point what happened was not even taught in schools in Cambodia,” Johnston said.


The Missing Picture was screened during the Asia House Pan-Asia Film Festival.