The Missing Picture
There were some horrible murderous regimes in the world during the 20th Century.
The most perversely horrible of them all is not the one you’re thinking of, though. It was the Khmer Rouge.
Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge only ruled Cambodia for four years. But the suffering and destruction it caused was incomprehensible. Plenty of other regimes killed people. The Khmer Rouge annihilated an entire society.
On April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge army captured Phnom Penh. Its goal wasn’t to rule the city; it was to erase civilization. Soldiers blew up all the banks and financial records, killed businessmen, artists, clergymen, and intellectuals, and forced everyone else to relocate to the countryside. This included “The Missing Picture” director Rithy Panh.
The Communist regime’s plan was simple and insane: to rid Cambodia of all money, private property, unfairness, class differences, modernity, urban life, religion, and outside influence.
In practice, that meant taking people like 13-year-old Panh and his family Đ who had never been outside of the city Đ to rural rice paddies and working them to death.
The government soldiers told the new farmers that they were being reeducated. But the real plan was to eliminate everyone who remembered the way Cambodia used to be.
The new farmers were given preposterous production quotas and were punished with less rice when they inevitably fell short. Since western medicine was forbidden, weakened workers died of curable diseases like malaria. Anyone who was caught fishing or foraging for food was executed. Panh watched his entire family Đ including both parents Đ die in front of him.
Since the only video footage of the Khmer Rouge killing fields is official government propaganda, Panh fills in the missing picture with reenactments of the events he witnessed featuring little clay people that he carved. Panh’s clay people are surprisingly sympathetic and expressive.
With his clay reenactments and his calm, stoic narration, Panh lets us in on the ghastly policies of the regime that it never shared with the outside world.
For example, the government soldiers separated the young children from their families because kids were the easiest to reeducate completely. Soldiers taught the children about collectivism, Party loyalty, and taught them how to torture by having them practice on animals. The children were told that anyone outside the Party was an enemy.
Panh witnessed a heart-wrenching incident where a 9-year-old boy publicly accused his mother of picking mangoes and watched proudly as his mom Đ the enemy of the state Đ was dragged to the forest and shot.
“The Missing Picture” is an educational documentary for anyone who isn’t aware of the Khmer Rouge and its atrocities. However, the film is surprisingly light on intellectual and emotional substance.
Surely, Panh is angry or bitter or miserable, right? If he is, he doesn’t admit it. Surely, he learned something about humanity from his experience. Based on the movie, he didn’t.
Well I learned a few things. Firstly, don’t trust a politician who wants to take more of your money or weapons. Because without money or weapons, a person is completely powerless in the face of government oppression. Secondly, don’t trust a politician who justifies his actions in the name of fairness. Because fairness is the enemy of greatness, liberty, and human dignity.
The lesson of 1975 Cambodia is that a society can go from freedom to unspeakable oppression incredibly quickly if the people aren’t vigilant.