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Oscar 2014: Who Should Win Best Foreign Language Film?

In the form of a video letter to Rithy Panh.

By Kevin B. Lee February 25, 2014

‘The Missing Picture’

[This is the eighth and final entry in “Video Evidence,” a series of video essays championing the most deserving Oscar nominees. For the full list of video essays, see the 2014 Oscars: Video Evidence main page.]

Dear Rithy Panh,

Please forgive my poor handwriting. I’m not used to making words with my hands, unless it’s through a keyboard with every letter neat and perfect on a screen. But after seeing your film The Missing Picture, I’m compelled to use my hand to make words this way, because your film is the first I’ve seen in a long time that uses hands to make images. It is a handmade movie that is as profound as it is deeply personal.

[Watch Kevin’s letter to Rithy Panh in video essay form:]

These days it’s so easy to make an image, and we do it all the time. Thus we have more images than we even know what to do with. But from 1975 to 1979, you had no way to make images, except to keep them in your memory. And your experiences at that time in Cambodia, surviving the genocide of the Khmer Rouge army, created terrible memories.

For five years, you witnessed people dying from forced labor, torture and starvation, including your own family members. There are no images of these memories, so you had to create them. All those lost people are carved by hand back into reality. All those buried memories are now visible for us to see.

Page one of Kevin's letter to Rithy Panh.

Page one of Kevin’s letter to Rithy Panh

I couldn’t believe my own eyes when I saw that your film was nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. I can’t remember the last time a documentary was included in this category. And your film is not just any documentary, but a special kind that is my favorite: an essay film.

As an essay filmmaker, you don’t just tell us a story by showing images. You also make us reflect on the way you are telling and showing.

Page two of Kevin's letter to Rithy Panh.

Page two of Kevin’s letter to Rithy Panh

This is important because the only surviving images of your past are the propaganda movies made by the Khmer Rouge, which only tell their version of what happened. Your images challenge their images, but they also question the power of any image to tell the truth. This is so crucial to our time when we have so many images to look at that we don’t think about the things they don’t show and the truths they don’t tell.

These days in the United States movie fans are excited for The Lego Movie, which celebrates the power of creativity by using Lego toy bricks. But most of the Legos in the movie are not even real bricks, but made by computer. The whole thing plays like a huge digital fantasy.


‘The Missing Picture’

Your movie is like the anti-Lego Movie. You not only use real models, but each one is made by hand. Each one is invested with time and care, heart and soul. And because they reflect a time and place where creativity meant death, they celebrate creativity more powerfully.

Thank you Rithy, for this film that reminds us that the power of cinema, the power of images, is still in our hands.

Kevin B. Lee is a filmmaker, critic, video essayist and founding editor of Keyframe. He tweets as @alsolikelife.

Page three of Kevin's letter to Rithy Panh.

Page three of Kevin’s letter to Rithy Panh

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