One of the most unusual documentaries screened at the 2013 VFF (Virginia Film Festival) was The Missing Picture by filmmaker Rithy Panh. A personal account of Panh’s childhood in Cambodia during the years of the Khmer Rouge regime, the film follows Panh’s memories of his family and what happened to them when Pol Pot’s forces invaded the cities and deported the inhabitants to internment camps where they were “re-educated” under the most harsh living conditions imaginable.
Panh was eleven at the time he was incarcerated in 1975 and the horrors he witnessed at the camps – executions, torture, starvation, sickness, physically exhausting labor and complete suppression of personal thoughts, conversation or mental stimulation – are unimaginable to anyone who has never lived through the kind of genocide the director experienced. (For a more thorough understanding of how Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge came into power, you might want to read Cambodia: Report from a Stricken Land by Henry Kamm or When the War Was Over by Elizabeth Becker.)
What keeps The Missing Picture from becoming an unbearable and hard to watch true life account is Panh’s stylized treatment of his memoirs, combining archival footage (most of it taken from propaganda films created by Pol Pot’s staff) with intricately designed sets and characters made of clay, who become stand-ins for the people Panh knew. The effect is both poetic and inspired in terms of capturing Panh’s memories of this time. It gives you an intimate account of how the camps operated and the price of survival without alienating you with atrocity footage or actual photographs of the countless cruelties committed.
The reality was that the Khmer Rouge forbid photographs or filming of anything unless it was sanctioned by the regime; to disobey them meant death. In one telling sequence, we see newsreel footage of a Pol Pot rally and an audience of happy, smiling workers. The cameraman pans across the sea of ecstatic faces and pauses to note the serious, unsmiling faces of some young attendees. We later learn that the cameraman was executed for this indiscretion and it’s quite likely that his unsmiling subjects were identified and eliminated as well.
The meticulously detailed clay dioramas and figures featured in The Missing Picture were sculpted by Sarith Mang and the voiceover narration is by Randal Douc. Rithy Panh is not well known in the U.S. yet but The Missing Picture should change that. He was born in Phnom Penh in 1964 and has been making movies since the late ’80s. In his own country, he is considered one of their most important directors and several of his documentaries have been honored at international film festivals. His 2003 documentary S-21, la machine de mort Khmere rouge and The Missing Picture both won awards at Cannes and Le terre des ames errants (2000) won awards at both the San Francisco and Vancouver International Film Festivals.
The Missing Picture is Cambodia’s official submission to the 2013 Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film but the fact that it is a documentary puts it at a disadvantage in a category where, it if makes the final ballot, is bound to end up running against this year’s emerging favorite, Blue is the Warmest Colour. Regardless of whether it receives an Academy Award nomination or not, The Missing Picture is highly recommended and essential viewing.
*The Missing Picture did secure an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film of 2014 but it lost to the Italian entry, Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty. (Blue is the Warmest Color did not receive any Oscar nominations despite picking up awards at numerous film festivals like Cannes). The Missing Picture was released to DVD in 2014 but is still due for a Blu-ray upgrade.
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