Winner of the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes and nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award, Rithy Panh’s The Missing Picture is a brilliantly rendered look back at the director’s childhood in Cambodia just as Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge began their reign of terror in the mid-1970s. “I seek my childhood like a lost picture, or rather it seeks me,” narrator Randal Douc says in French, reciting darkly poetic and intimately personal text written by author Christophe Bataille (Annam) based on Panh’s life. Born in Phnom Penh in 1964, Panh, who has made such previous documentaries about his native country as S21, The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine and Duch, Master of the Forges of Hell and wrote the 2012 book L’élimination with Bataille, was faced with a major challenge in telling his story; although he found remarkable archival footage of the communist Angkar regime, there are precious few photographs or home movies of his family and the community where he grew up. So he had sculptor Sarith Mang hand-carve and paint wooden figurines that Panh placed in dioramas to detail what happened to his friends, relatives, and neighbors. Panh’s camera hovers over and zooms into the dioramas, bringing these people, who exist primarily only in memory, to vivid life. When people disappear, Panh depicts their carved representatives flying through the sky, as if finally achieving freedom amid all the horrors. He delves into the Angkar’s propaganda movement and sloganeering — the “great leap forward,” spread through film and other methods — as the rulers sent young men and women into forced labor camps. “With film too, the harvests are glorious,” Douc states as women are shown, in black-and-white, working in the fields. “There is grain. There are the calm, determined faces. Like a painting. A poem. At last I see the Revolution they so promised us. It exists only on film.” It’s a stark comparison to cinematographer Prum Mésa’s modern-day shots of the wind blowing through lush green fields, devoid of people.
The Missing Picture is an extraordinarily poignant memoir that uses the director’s personal tale as a microcosm for what happened in Cambodia during the 1970s, employing the figures and dioramas to compensate for “the missing pictures.” Like such other documentaries as Jessica Wu’s Protagonist and In the Realms of the Unreal, Michel Gondry’s Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?, Jeff Malmberg’s Marwencol, and Zachary Heinzerling’s Cutie and the Boxer, which incorporate animation, puppetry, and/or miniatures to enhance the narrative or fill in gaps, Panh makes creative use of an unexpected artistic technique, this time concentrating on painful history as well as personal and collective memory.