Directed by: Rithy Panh.
Written by: Rithy Panh and Christophe Bataille.
The title, The Missing Picture, refers to the lack of archival footage that exists of Cambodia after Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge took over the capital in 1975, and embarked on a brutal regime of torture, slavery and murder – all in the name of making everyone equal. There isn’t a lot of footage of that time – but director Rithy Panh lived through it, and knows what it looked it. He has spent his career making documentaries about that time in his life – when he was still a young teenager, who watched his family be forced into what was essentially slavery, and ended up with many of them dead. With a lack of archival footage, Panh has had to rely on other means to show what happened – none of them more daring than in The Missing Picture, where he uses hand craved figurines to stand in for his family and his country. The figures don’t move, but the camera does, and Panh shows us the happy times before the fall of his country, and the horrible aftermath of everything that came later. The film is very personal – made up mainly of his own memories about his own family – but stands for something much larger. The personal, in this case, really is political.
The Missing Picture is a beautiful and horrifying film – often at the same time. The hand craved figurines have a haunted, frightened look to them. Panh often makes them all look the same – same expression on their faces, same clothes, etc. – except for himself, who makes stand out just a little bit (wearing more brightly colored shirts for example). While the figurines do add a layer of distance to the proceedings, the voiceover narration by Panh brings things back to reality. The voiceover, like the movie itself, is somewhat poetic – beautiful, tragic, sad and horrifying.
Panh does make use of what archival footage that does exist – and does so to great effect. He shows both the reality of the situation, and the propaganda that Pol Pot and company released to make their country look like a paradise, when it clearly was not. The effect is chilling.
The Missing Picture is a bold, artistic film. Yes, it is a documentary, buts it’s not a strict history – if you didn’t know much about Cambodia, you may well get lost at some times. This is a film that demands much from its audience. But it’s one that rewards those demands with a beautiful, heartbreaking film.