This article focuses on the images used over four decades to represent the Cambodian genocide in photography, cinema, visual arts and the media as the basis for analyzing the documentary-memoir directed by Rithy Panh, The Missing Picture. First, there is a paucity of images which depict, evoke or allude to the crimes perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge (1975-1979); second, scholars raise objections about whether any image can adequately depict a catastrophic event such as genocide. This article begins by categorizing the Cambodian genocide iconography according to the modality of the visual production. After briefly classifying this visual output in four categories (perpetrator images, liberator images, belated evidential images, and creative imagery), the author questions the challenging visual strategies used in The Missing Picture. Rithy Panh adopts an unexpected and original dispositif in his documentary: an un-realistic imagery based on hand-carved clay figurines placed in a diorama-like setting, as the narrative is sustained by a first-person hypnotic voiceover that evokes the author’s childhood memories under the Khmer Rouge rule. By juxtaposing these static figures with propaganda archival footage, Panh introduces an estrangement that paradoxically imbues the film continuum with an emotional tone ideal for conveying affliction. From a figurative perspective, this device avoids mimesis and draws upon a tradition of “animal stories” combined with animation techniques. Beyond a representational point of view, the originality of The Missing Picture draws on the search of a visual and narrative vocabulary destined to perform an exorcism from trauma; or, from another perspective, a self-therapeutic exercise through art and memory work.
I would like to thank the respective directors, Chhay Visoth, Youk Chhang and Rithy Panh for providing access to the material, as well as Helen Jarvis for facilitating access to the Tuol Sleng archives. I am also grateful for the enlightening conversations in New York with Deirdre Boyle in the Winter-Spring 2017 and to Stéphanie Benzaquen-Gautier and Anne-Laure Porée for sharing a common project on Tuol Sleng.
"Challenging Old and New Images Representing the Cambodian Genocide: The Missing Picture (Rithy Panh, 2013),"
Genocide Studies and Prevention: An International Journal:
Available at: https://digitalcommons.usf.edu/gsp/vol12/iss2/10
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