The unique perspective of Rithy Panh’s unusual and affecting documentary, The Missing Picture, is captured best by the scene in which the inmates of a mid-1970s Khmer Rouge re-education camp in warn-torn Cambodia are seated on the ground watching the screening of a movie under the watchful eyes of armed soldiers. The images playing on the screen come from one of the actual propaganda films churned out at the time by the government; the inmates and soldiers are portrayed by hand-painted figurines made of clay. The unsettling truth of Panh’s movie is that the only cinematic records that exist from that era are the disinformation movies made by the fanatical party that ruled Cambodia with an iron fist for four nightmarish years from 1975 to 1979. To fill the void, the filmmaker has recreated the era from his memories using clay models which he moves about on doll-house sets and dioramas.
Panh was just 11 when his entire family, along with some two million others from the capital city of Phnom Penh, was displaced by the dictator Pol Pot in his misguided efforts at socially engineering a new agrarian society in the South East Asian nation. Families were broken up, forced to abandon their personal belongings and start a new rural life living in collectives and work the fields. During the past decade, Panh has made several movies documenting the atrocities committed in his native land, and written The Elimination, a memoir about his teenage years in the Khmer Rouge camps prior to his escape to Thailand in 1979. His family home in Phnom Penh, which was turned in subsequent years into a brothel, is now apparently a local karaoke bar and unrecognizable. So to make the movie of his own story, without personal memorabilia or documentary evidence from the period, he turned to using the painted clay models.
Inured as we are these days to every variety of man’s inhumanity to others, the clay figurines, so poignantly created by sculptor Sarith Mang, become an extraordinary testament to a lost society. With the help of an off-screen narrator, Panh recounts the story of his singular childhood. We see the young boy get brutally yanked from a comfortable home where music and literature thrived, lose both his parents and his siblings in the fateful four years that follow, work in child labor camps in near starvation, witness children denounce their parents to the authorities, and endure the horrors of a regime that demanded that the people re-educate themselves to the regime’s liking or die. The clay models are photographed as if they are live actors, and are occasionally superimposed on found documentary footage from the era, a strikingly surreal recreation of the past. Describing the scene where the forced laborers are treated to the cinematic glories of Pol Pot’s new republic, the narrator notes: “Of course we knew the actors were bad, that the film was bad, and many slept at the back exhausted, like me.”
The Missing Picture occasionally loses its narrative focus and feels longer than its 92 minutes running time. Symbolic imagery—waves crashing on a shore and corroding stacks of canisters with deteriorating film—tend to become repetitious, and Panh sometimes includes a historical commentary that’s not sustained long enough make an impact. He briefly touches on the culpability of the American forces, whose carpet-bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War helped foster the rise of the Khmer Rouge, and alludes to the fact that several perpetrators of the former regime’s crimes against their own people are still living happily in the villages they once terrorized. But his personal story is always the most compelling and visually arresting. “How is it that I am here?” asks the narrator, reflecting on his survival through the arduous four years. He wonders if his father’s decision to go on a hunger strike and die was ultimately the best way to beat the regime. Panh has made a powerful document of true horror, which he passes on to the audience as a way of exorcising the memory for himself: As the narrator says, “I wish to be rid of this picture so I show this to you.”
The New York Film Festival runs from September 27—October 13.