In French-accented English, a narrator describes Khmer Rouge’s assault on Cambodia. Using voiceover, the actor performs as 13-year-old Rithy Panh recalling the invasion of Phnom Penh in 1975 with the realization he’s “the enemy” to the communist intruders. Because Panh’s father was a schoolteacher, his family was labeled bourgeois and forced into a labor camp. Along with over one million fellow citizens—artists, educators, journalists, poets, photographers and intellectuals who might speak out against (or even record) what would become a four-year reign of terror—Panh and his relatives were relocated to the agrarian countryside for “reeducation.” This failed agenda masterminded by Khmer Rouge was their attempt at equalizing Cambodian society.
Unlike many of his unfortunate compatriots, Panh survived the catastrophe. Living in France, he became a filmmaker compelled to tell the stories of those who died, and those who lived and suffered. He made The Missing Picture, he contends, because he was looking for a nonexistent photograph to prove Khmer Rouge’s spree of genocide. However, Panh discovered a storytelling style using hand-carved figures made of clay and water that completes the narrative without the absent photo.
Replicating chickens, dogs, oxen, fences, houses, staircases, palm trees, plants, rickshaws, trains, and more, he employs diorama to illustrate the deadly drudgery of being imprisoned by Khmer Rouge. The lifeless forms representing Cambodian characters are minutely detailed down to their slack expressions. Engraved with grim, unsmiling faces, their vacant eyes conveying only weariness, the clay figures are juxtaposed against archival black-and-white propaganda footage shot by Khmer Rouge. The result is startling.
Leaving behind everything they owned, Cambodians were forced into uniforms of black pajamas and red-checkered scarves. With their first names stripped away, they were ordered to dig dirt—dirt to plant rice that they never tasted (most of it shipped overseas or fed to Khmer Rouge party leaders) and dirt to bury their dead. Panh uses real dirt too, and real grass, carefully crafting scenes of his pleasant childhood home as well as the vile killing fields. Between Americans dropping 500,000 tons of bombs and leader Pol Pot inflicting unbelievable cruelty, Cambodians endured unspeakable dehumanization.
“Ideology kills,” the narrator declares, but that proclamation doesn’t even begin to explain Khmer Rouge’s terrifying dogma. Instead, it’s Panh’s very personal memories that require no missing photograph to tell the truth about what happened.
Another documentary about Cambodia unsurprisingly features another victim of Khmer Rouge. In Cambodian Son, poet Kosal Khiev is examined up close and personal. Arriving in America with his family as refugees when he was just a year old, Kosal was granted asylum status. But growing up impoverished in California without his father led him to street life. At 16, Kosal was charged with attempted murder and sent to prison for fourteen years. There, he discovered the art of spoken word. But when he was finally set free, he was flown back to Phnom Penh.
Exiled as a criminal alien, Kosal was deported to his birthplace; paradoxically, a country he had never really known. Befriending others like himself, he learned they also had youth criminal records and knew little of the language, customs and culture of their new residence. With families in the United States, these unwilling expatriates grouped together through their shared experiences.
Director Masahiro Sugano focuses on Kosal’s success as a spoken word artist and his invitation to represent Cambodia at the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad. But Sugano also addresses important topics like immigration, refugees and deportation. His interviews with other exiles battling loneliness with drugs and other unhealthy lifestyle choices are poignant. Creatively shot with artistic flair, the film also displays definitions from gang vocabulary.
From Japan comes the 68-minute anime feature, Short Peace comprised of four pieces compiled by director Otomo Katsuhiro.
In Possessions, an 18th century man becomes lost in the mountains during a storm. Seeking shelter at an abandoned shrine, he discovers that it’s haunted by the souls of 100 year-old objects. Sewing and mending them throughout the night, he restores beautifully colored paper umbrellas (kasa) and vividly patterned kimono.
The most riveting of the shorts, Combustible is a seemingly authentic tale from Japan’s Edo Period. Growing up as wealthy next-door neighbors, Waka-chan and Matsukichi-chan are torn apart as adults. While Waka is forced into an arranged marriage, Matsukichi defies his parents to the point of being disowned—so he can become a firefighter. Ironically, he’s sent to rescue his beloved Waka in a rapidly spreading fire she causes. Containing details from 19th century woodblock prints, and textile patterns and kimono from real fabric, the film also incorporates elements of kabuki and banraku plays.
Gambo is the name of a gentle, white bear living in a forest near a village that a gigantic red demon has ravaged. Kidnapping women one by one, the demon has nearly depleted the community when a Christian samurai arrives on the scene. Between him, Imperial soldiers, the last remaining girl, and Gambo (who understands human language), they fight the monster together.
A Farewell to Arms has the only modern storyline in the ensemble. Featuring soldiers with names like Gimlet and Rum, it’s one long, noisy battle scene between a mechanical enemy and heavily armed, non-Japanese looking fighters in a post-apocalyptic city.
The psychedelic, jazz-flavored music in the introduction of the series (where a white rabbit entices an Alice-in-Wonderland character) is sublime; and, images of soothing Mt. Fuji end two of the episodes.
The Missing Picture screens April 4 at SIFF Film Center. Cambodian Son screens April 21 at 8:00 p.m. at UW Law School, Gates Hall, Room 138. A Q&A with director Masahiro Sugano follows. (April 22 show sold out) Short Peace screens April 24 at Grand Illusion Cinema.