‘The Missing Picture,’ the first film from Cambodia to be nominated for an Oscar, resonates with audience members at a special screening in Long Beach.
There were scenes depicting executions, starvation and forced labor — a haunting reminder of Neth’s own life under Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge and its notorious leader, Pol Pot.
When a young girl in the film cried out for her parents before dying of starvation, Neth saw the face of his older brother, who died from malnutrition while lying next to Neth as he slept. Neth was 5 years old at the time.
“It was very raw,” Neth, who now lives in Long Beach, said after seeing the film. “When it was over, for a moment, I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to clap.”
Neth, 43, was among dozens of Cambodian Americans who attended a special screening Saturday of “The Missing Picture,” the first film from Cambodia to be nominated for an Oscar.
The film is a first-person account from director Rithy Panh, whose parents, sisters and cousins were among the nearly 2 million Cambodians killed during Pol Pot’s reign of terror between 1975 and 1979.
For many Cambodian Americans, the film’s rise has brought an exhilarating moment of pride after decades mired in the legacy of violence.
“It doesn’t belong to me anymore, the film,” Panh said in an interview Thursday. “It belongs to the whole country. It belongs to all Cambodians now.”
Panh attended the screening Saturday, which featured traditional Khmer dancers, and answered questions from the audience afterward.
He took the opportunity to remind them that the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge are only a small portion of the country’s rich history.
“We existed before the Khmer Rouge, and we will exist after the Khmer Rouge,” he said. “They were four tragic years, but we must face the history.”
The film’s U.S. debut was not held in New York or Hollywood but at the neighborhood Art Theatre in Long Beach, home to the largest Cambodian American enclave in the country.
Against the backdrop of a somber narrator, Panh uses dioramas of still clay figures spliced with Khmer Rouge propaganda films to depict how the regime drove millions from the cities, stripping them of all possessions and forcing them into labor camps on meager rations.
Panh said he decided to use the clay figures almost by accident: He asked an assistant to create a scale model of his home as he remembered it, and it struck him that the images he had found could never tell the full truth.
For people here, Panh’s film has helped build a bridge between older Cambodians who have remained largely silent about the horrors they fled, and younger generations who are curious about their family’s past.
“The older generation has been so steeped in the Khmer Rouge that they’re still traumatized by it,” Neth said.
His own mother, who fled with him and his brother to Thailand in 1979 before moving to the U.S., never spoke a word to him about what they’d been through.
As president of the local Cambodian Coordinating Council, he’s helped organize the city’s annual Cambodian New Year celebration for nearly 15 years. But he’s never told his three children in detail what he experienced. Until now.
“It’s given me something to talk about, a way to talk” about his experiences, Neth said of the film.
He plans to take his 15-year-old son to see the film in hopes that he might finally get him to understand what brought the family to the United States.
“I don’t want him to be ashamed of our history,” he said.
For filmmaker Caylee So, 32, Panh’s movie is a resource for piecing together her own family’s story.
Born in a refugee camp in Thailand, she grew up decidedly American in Virginia and knew nothing of the killing fields in Cambodia. When her mother passed away 11 years ago, she realized how little she knew about her life.
She searched for journals, letters, anything — but found nothing. “I felt this great sadness because I had never asked,” she said.
Watching the film, So said, was like losing her mother and finding her again all at once.
“Knowing that my parents’ story exists out there somewhere so other people can understand, that’s very meaningful. That’s something the community has been looking for for a while.”
Panh said he’s not sure that talking about his past has made him feel any more at peace about it.
“But,” he adds, “I am sure that if I don’t talk, the next generation will feel they cannot be proud about their identity.”
To him, the Oscar nomination means much more than simply the prestige it brings.
“It means I’m here, I’m still alive…,” he said. “Maybe they killed my parents, they caused me a lot of pain, but they cannot destroy my heart, my soul, my imagination.”