With The Missing Picture, a fascinatingly earnest and unique documentary experience, filmmaker Rithy Panh acutely articulates a personal meditation on the loss of freedom and identity during the Khmer Rouge's ruling of Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh, the country's capital, in April of 1975, when Panh was 13 years old. With the communist takeover came the destruction of communities and families, as well as the obliteration of a culture and its artifacts. Paramount to molding a narrative of war and totalitarianism, however, is the inventive aesthetic in which Panh frames his memoir: a hypnotic hybrid of bleak archival footage, thoughtful voiceover, tone-dictating music, and—most significantly—homemade clay-figurine dioramas.
Without the luxury of long-gone family souvenirs and photographs, Panh tells his story through objects that stand in for himself and everyone around him, and these front-and-center signifiers become salient symbols of youth gripped by harrowing times. Although The Missing Picture is driven by this singular conceit, Panh's intentions are twofold: to expound on the harrowing events that transpired as he and his family were sent to labor camps and rice fields, and to document the nationwide atrocities forced on the citizens of Cambodia. Since Panh was robbed of a childhood and, to a further extent, an identity, his choice to use figurines hand-sculpted for the film by Sarith Mang is quite clever, as they function as a child's imaginative role-playing with action figures while also stressing the lack of individuality that reigned supreme through the overworked, underfed dehumanization of the country's people (the figurines are all painted in drab black uniforms). Now 50, Panh reflects, "In the middle of life, childhood returns—sweet and bitter."
Panh investigates how recalling the rich cultural paraphernalia that went missing during the communist-led Cambodia represents a giant step toward highlighting what inspirational, life-reinforcing art is to be found—and, more importantly, recovered—among the ashes of a dreary time in Cambodian history. Although The Missing Picture is meant to inform the audience of the horrific Khmer Rouge-controlled era as it charts Panh's personal struggles, it doesn't completely work as an informative lesson on the communist regime: As a conceptual piece, the doc is a galvanizing account of a young boy's war-torn realities, successfully elucidating on the corrosion of his soul, but as a history lesson it's a little bleary-eyed.
Without a clear structure, Panh's personal essay-styled voiceover occasionally borders on the ponderous, though it remains imaginative and intelligent. And with such an affected and alienating device such as clay figure-filled tableaus serving as the primary setting (dire archival footage is interspersed throughout as well, with the figures occasionally superimposed on top), it's difficult for Panh to capture the immersive effect he so dearly wishes to conjure: to place the audience in the mire of hunger, fatigue, and despair. But his cavalcade of ideas (a dizzying mélange of meditations on reminiscence, self-identification, and cinema itself) forges an exceedingly empathetic representation of the childhood memories he still struggles with over 35 years later.
Throughout The Missing Picture, Panh addresses his adoring preoccupation with the power of cinema both as a child escaping into fantastical images and as an adult aware of its cultural significance. He evokes memories of pre-war cinema (he once visited, and was mesmerized, by an elaborate film set), yet also notes the perniciousness of propaganda that cannibalized Cambodian cinema in the late '70s. In these moments, Panh's sadness speaks as clearly about cinema as it does when discussing the sorrows of war. But with its hopeful, celluloid-touting conclusion, The Missing Picture contextualizes cinema not only as a form of magic (capable of transformative, elated power), but also of revolution.