Film Review: The Missing Picture

Using archival footage and clay sculptures, Rithy Panh recalls his years of imprisonment in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge.

A survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, Rithy Panh has made several documentaries about the devastating effect of its policies. One of the problems with documenting the period is that motion pictures, apart from propaganda, were suspect. Generally, only material approved by the government survived.

In The Missing Picture, Panh tries to compensate for the absence of a visual record with clay sculptures that are photographed in elaborate dioramas. Reduced in scale, the enormity of the Khmer Rouge atrocities becomes easier to comprehend, if harder to understand.

When Panh was 13, he and his middle-class family were removed from Phnom Penh in 1975 and transported by cattle car to remote labor camps. Panh's father went on the equivalent of a hunger strike and died. Panh's mother and sisters also succumbed. His older brother, a musician, disappeared.

Panh is assigned to different camps, on dry plains and in jungles. The inmates are systematically starved and worked to exhaustion as part of their "re-education."

With their elemental poses, the rough clay figurines serve as abstractions for the Khmer Rouge victims. (Estimates range from one to three million dead.) As Prum Mésa's camera prowls among them, they show what archival footage cannot—senseless violence and death in a world without any form of culture, in which normality has been upended.

Panh intercuts propaganda shots of Pol Pot and other Khmer Rouge leaders at political conventions, as well as newsreel footage of labor camps and some clandestine material taken by a cinematographer who was later executed.

The Missing Picture also features dense aural collages of pop and folk songs, movie soundtracks and Khmer Rouge anthems. They provide a ghostly counterpart to the measured narration delivered by Randal Douc.

It's hard to grasp the scale of crimes perpetuated by the Khmer Rouge. The sculptures and quiet voiceover in The Missing Picture distance viewers somewhat from the full horror of the scenes depicted. (A contemporary scene of a young boy trying to till soil gives an indication of just how shocking Panh's daily life was.)

It took years for the full extent of the catastrophe in Cambodia to emerge. Panh, one of the founders of Bophana, a group helping preserve Cambodia's film and audio history, has been in the forefront of keeping the Khmer Rouge story before the public. But this is harsh, gruesome material that is not easy to watch.

The Missing Picture received the top prize at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival's Un Certain Regard, and was Cambodia's submission for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards.