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Laramie Movie Scope:
The Missing Picture

Going back to the killing fields

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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December 9, 2014 -- The tyrannical, extremist Pol Pot regime of Cambodia killed over one million of people, but it also destroyed countless photographs, film, movies, videotape, books, magazines, the collected works and memories of a whole generation. Filmmaker Rithy Pahn, a survivor of that hellish time, has dedicated himself to documenting it, any way he can. In this film, he uses innovative techniques to recreate the missing history of his family, and of a nation.

Pahn uses elaborate dioramas, peopled with many small, painted clay figures made to look like people from his past. He also uses archival film, backed by his own narration, and sometimes coupled with his clay figures. He also uses modern footage at times. Superimposing clay figures over old newsreel and propaganda footage is used to combine past and present. Pahn also uses a recurring theme of ocean waves trying to wash away the past.

Pahn's theme is that in middle age, people return often to their childhood memories. The Khmer Rouge, under Pol Pot, separated families and replaced names with numbers. The aim was to completely remake the country using a radical agrarian vision. The cities were emptied and the people were forced onto collective farms, where many starved to death. Pahn fights back with the only thing he has left from those times, his memories. He also takes us back to a time before the Kymer Rouge set up their government. Pol Pot ruled Cambodia from 1976 to 1979, calling it Democratic Kampuchea, but it was a totalitarian dictatorship.

Pahn, 11 at the time the Khmer Rouge took power, survived, but the rest of his family did not. He tells the heartbreaking story of his father, who died after refusing to eat, saying he would not eat like an animal. At the time, he hated his father for this, but later grew to admire his father's one last act of defiance, his refusal to go along with the rules of the Kymer Rouge. The rules of the government were nonsensical. Pahn says fish were plentiful, but fishing was forbidden. People ate insects, rats, anything they could find to supplement their meager ration of rice.

In the film Pahn shows the vast difference between harsh reality and what is shown in the propaganda films made by the Kymer Rouge. He tells a story of a cinematographer who tried to show what was really happening to the people, and was executed for his efforts. Pahn shows his clay figures flying away after death. He shows the harsh conditions of the primitive hospitals where people go to die. One after one, the clay figures disappear from the primitive beds, vanishing into thin air.

There were no cemeteries, no traditional burials, no grave markers, only mass graves with no identifying markers. Pan has his own burials of his figurines in the film. Under the rule of the Kymer Rouge, a quarter of the population of Cambodia died, but this film isn't about numbers. It is a deeply personal story of bitter memories and a revolution gone terribly wrong.

Pahn notes near the end of his film that even though the government of Cambodia has changed and life is much better, life is not much improved for the poor, who are seen digging ditches along a road with hand tools. It was the discontent of the poor which fueled the revolution in the first place.

This is a very sobering film about one of the darkest episodes of human history. It is about what happens when extremists take over a whole society who have a high regard for ideology, but no regard for the people they rule. This film rates a B. It is in French, with English subtitles.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright 2014 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)