By James Teitelbaum.
Near the end of The Missing Picture, director Rithy Panh’s grim memoir of life under the Khmer Rouge regime in 1970s Cambodia, we see a clay figure representing a middle-aged Panh in repose within a detailed diorama of a psychiatrist’s office. This of course is a reminder of what most viewers will have realized by this point in the film, which is that it is not a documentary, nor is it entirely a memoir. It is a catharsis, an emotional cleansing. Panh has now made fifteen films, and many of them deal with the struggles of the Cambodian people. But from the beginning of The Missing Picture, we are meant to understand that this one may be his most personal.
Forced to transform rocky clay landscapes and harvest rice in intensely hot weather, Panh lost both of his parents and all of his siblings to starvation and exhaustion. This film, by the sole survivor of his family, is the testament of a man who dreamed of making movies as child, and who is still confronting the horrific events that destroyed his family and erased his entire culture. Only his devotion to film seems to have emerged unscathed from the Cambodian killing fields.
The Missing Picture spends no time with exposition, and assumes a foreknowledge of the brutal events that took place leading up to the events described in Panh’s detailed monologue. For those not up to speed on their 1970s Southeast Asian history, Cambodia was a French protectorate from 1863 to 1953. When the Vietnam War spilled into Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary, Son Sen, and Khieu Samphan, took control capitol city Phnom Penh. (A “Khmer” is both a Cambodian citizen and their language; “rouge” is French for “red”, thus “Red (communist) Cambodians”). Their enforcement of absolute self-sufficiency policies from 1975-1979 resulted in the Cambodian genocide, which cost Rithy Panh so much as he watched his family and up to two million other Cambodians perish in the killing fields.
The film opens with shots of dusty and decaying film canisters, faded old cinema film, and vintage footage of a beautiful woman in Cambodian costume performing a traditional dance. Her elegant hands move sensually, as the film cuts to a closeup of a man’s rough and dirty hands carving and painting a tiny clay figure. These often colorful figures are central to the film’s unique visual style, which employs dozens of large and detailed miniature environments populated by hundreds of these motionless earthy inhabitants. Combined with disturbing black and white archival propaganda films, creepy music by Marc Marder, and a weary monotone voice over, these elements work together to tell a story in a way that juxtaposes static fragments of childhood memory and the manufactured reality of the archival film footage to startling effect. Panh uses the child psychologist’s technique of having kids act out painful feelings with toys by recalling his own childhood memories via models made of the same clay he came to know so intimately as a child laborer breaking rocks in rice paddies. Unable to move or communicate, these voiceless figures recall the frustrations of the living victims completely subdued by Pol Pot’s regime, and are therefore completely effective representatives of some of the very real people who perished.
These people should have been the subjects of the photo referenced in the film’s title. No known recorded documentation of this genocide is known to exist. Only the propaganda remains. Panh’s need to provide this missing visual document is the impetus for the film. It is easy to imagine that the voice telling the story is Panh’s, and that the hands that we see creating the dioramas are his as well. The film feels intimate, and without knowledge of the director’s other works, one might imagine that creating elaborate models of the Cambodian killing fields is how this man has dealt with his tragedy for the past forty years. It is surprising to discover that the detached voiceovers are by Randal Douc in the original French version and Jean-Baptiste Phou in the English dub. The miniatures were carved by Sarith Mang with a team of four others building the environments. It is almost disappointing to discover that the voice we hear speaking is not Panh’s and that the hands we frequently see carving are not his either. But, the presence of his co-creators reminds us that he was not the only one who suffered through the reign of Pol Pot.
Although the film has some editing and pacing problems, which are not helped by the somber monotony of the glum voiceover, The Missing Picture admirably conveys its difficult message in a unique manner. Fittingly, the film was Cambodia’s first-ever entry into the Best Foreign Picture category during the 2014 Academy Awards.
James Teitelbaum is a media arts professor in Chicago. He has been writing film reviews for about a decade, and is the author of four books, including Destination: Cocktails (2012), and Big Stone Head (2009).