In the mid-1970s, the forces of Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, took over Cambodia. Their vicious, autocratic reign initiated a four-year national genocide that exterminated about a quarter of the country’s entire population. In the regime’s Utopia, no Cambodian would be distinguishable from another. Personalities would be eradicated. A human life was either brutally taken away or reduced to a lifetime of hardship spent in anonymity. Famine, mass executions, forced labor camps and withholding of medical supplies in favor of locally produced, natural medicines were only some of the atrocities committed.
Like most other dictatorships, little record remains of the government’s brutalities. The officially sponsored filmmakers would be subjected to torture and execution if their films showed any evidence of poverty or hardship among Cambodians and their negatives would be burned. Hence, what footage remains is either hidden and rusted, if not fully solidified, stock, or official films depicting a unified and hard working but satisfied people. The absence of truthful records of the era means stories like Rithy Panh’s are not easy subjects for a documentary film. Panh, a director whose filmography has dealt extensively with his personal family history in Cambodia, was a child when Phnom Penh was taken over by the Khmer Rouge forces. He was moved away from his hometown and lost his family and community to deaths or otherwise unknown circumstances.
It’s an intensely personal story for Panh, and one he cannot tell with the aid of real life footage for the aforementioned reasons. So, claiming that “it doesn’t take much but will” and hence grossly downplaying the painstaking process of his film’s making, Panh recreates the entirety of the events using hundreds of meticulously rendered clay figurines and their complete natural and architectural landscape. The digression from the traditional mode of political documentary filmmaking, which is necessitated by historical circumstances, has been seen in recent years in the likes of the animated Waltz with Bashir and Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, which coincidentally also tackles issues of genocide in another country in South East Asia. The production of The Missing Picture is unquestionably more elaborate than both and arguably more emotionally effective.
Enjoying a creative freedom that real footage usually does not afford documentarians, Panh bends the environment of his story to his vision, recreating – though not dramatizing – entire narratives in ways impossible in live action storytelling. Hence, the clay creations have a twofold effect: first, they artfully temper the overt, graphic violence of the real events and, in the process, immerse the audience in that world without exhausting their patience; second, the figurines are products of physical labor that inspire a genuine sense of pathos in the audience that intensifies the film’s dramatic beats. The Missing Picture gradually accumulates affection in the audience for these figurines, slowly diminishing any sense of artifice. Subtle shifts in the appearance of the clay figures – from noticeable loss of weight to gut-wrenching, miraculously real changes of facial expressions – imply more than can be suggested on paper. The director has instilled each one of them with personality and the immense weight of his own struggle.
Panh notes in his voiceover narration that thoughts, unlike pictures and documents, can never be taken away. His reimagining of a lost childhood, and a nation’s lost generation, in this artfully rendered form is a testament to the truth of his claim, to the sheer force of memory and to the timelessness of the impact of living under such intense oppression. In his deft hands, the film becomes not just a recreation of a reality long gone, but an indication of ever-present melancholia for an entire people. “I wish to be rid of this picture of hunger and suffering so I show it to you” says Panh. The therapeutic effects of this experience may only be known to him; the pain, however, is immediately palpable to us.