The documentary film “The Missing Picture” attempts an unconventional approach for its grim historical subject. Mainly through its simple but delicate presentation of clay figurine dioramas, it conveys to us the personal memories of pain and horror from one of the most infamous genocides in the 20th century, and the result is something unique and beautiful to observe and admire.
The director Rithy Panh, who managed to survive the Cambodian Genocide and then settled in France later, was about to have his 11th birthday when the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh on April 12th, 1975, and that was the end of his happy childhood. Not long after the fall of their city, he and his family and other many citizens of Phnom Penh were relocated to those notorious labor camps in the countryside for their ‘re-education’, and that was the beginning of a long living nightmare for everyone.
Like “The Killing Fields”(1984), a powerful film based on the real-life story of another survivor of that genocide, the documentary gives us a harrowing and horrific account of what happened to many Cambodian people during that gloomy period. Right after the arrival at their labor camp, young Panh and others were ordered to give up everything in their possession(they even took away toys from children just because private possession was forbidden), and then they were forced to work on rice paddies under a very poor condition which soon caused famine and diseases among them.
Young Panh witnessed many atrocities of the Khmer Rouge soldiers as struggling to survive everyday. Being pushed to work more while getting fed less, lots of people starved to death at the labor camp without getting no help. They were severely punished for minor deviations, and he remembers a heartbreaking circumstance in which a mother was accused by her own daughter and then promptly executed just for stealing a few mangos. Panh’s father chose to get himself starved and then died because of his righteous indignation toward being treated like a slave, and the other family members followed him later. When his mother was sent to a camp hospital, which was more like a morgue rather than a hospital, young Panh managed to catch a fish for his starving mother while not getting caught and executed for that, but, sadly, it was too late when he arrived at the hospital.
It goes without saying that his story is painful to tell, but Panh steadily maintains a restrained attitude throughout his film. He never fully appears in front of his camera, and he even had the narration read not by himself but by other narrators instead(The narration was done by Randal Douc in the original version while Jean-Baptiste Phou did the narration in the English version). Even during a number of scenes showing him working on his dioramas, we only see his hands sculpturing his clay figurines.
His pieces of memories are depicted through the admirable simplicity of his dioramas full of small and big details, and the resulting effect is as evocative as Ari Folman’s “Waltz with Bashir”(2008), a memorable animated documentary about Folman’s personal journey into his repressed memories involved with the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. These simple clay figurines in Panh’s dioramas are mostly in still positions, but, through their faces and bodies, they tell so much more about the horrors and tragedies during his days at the labor camp than mere words or conventional visual images like photographs.
Panh also gives us a handful of bright, lyrical moments, and we see a number of his happy childhood memories which consoled young Panh a lot during his difficult time. He remembers that amazing moment when he and others watched the first moon landing on TV in 1969, and he also remembers when he happened to watch a filmmaking process on one day through his neighbor, which might have inspired him to become a filmmaker later in his life.
These diorama scenes are effectively mixed together with the various surviving archival footages which show us more on how Cambodia was turned upside down by the Khmer Rouge regime. After Phnom Penh was fully vacated by the mass relocation of its citizens, the city virtually looked like a big ghost town, and then it was filled by the Khmer Rouge soldiers and their followers. The local infrastructures were virtually collapsed as their leader Pol Pot’s ambitious but ultimately disastrous plan for remodeling the whole country began its first murderous step, and money lost its value completely as a consequence. At one point, we get a striking archival clip which shows lots of paper money falling to the ground as worthless pieces of paper.
Many people were tortured or executed or driven to work to death during this time, and it was estimated that 1.7~2.5 million people died before Pol Pot’s reign of terror was ended by the Vietnamese Invasion in 1979(The population of Cambodia in 1975 was around 8 million, by the way). It is chilling to watch at times as the documentary shows the insane gap between glorious propaganda and grim reality; in the case of one cheery newsreel footage showing a big party meeting attended by Pol Pot and many other Khmer Rouge members, it is apparently riddled with some technical problem, and the narration calmly tells us that a man behind the camera was executed just because of that. Listening to the narration, I could help but think of Barbet Schroeder’s horribly amusing episode with Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, who executed a cameraman for messing up his TV appearance and then executed an editor later when Schroeder pointed out to him that it was not that cameraman’s fault.
I watched the film with a certain degree of interest while appreciating Panh’s painstaking efforts put behind his elaborate dioramas, but then it becomes increasingly repetitive around its second half while making no particular forward move, and that was where I began to feel a bit impatient with the film. It admirably stays within its personal viewpoint as intended, but it also feels meandering at times in its contemplative mood, and the historical perspective it provides around its ending looks more like an afterthought tacked onto itself later.
Nevertheless, “The Missing Picture”, which was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar early in this year, is still an engaging documentary which has a story worthwhile to be told, and Rithy Panh, who received the Un Certain Regard Award at the Cannes Film Festival for this film in last year, did a respectful job of making a sincere and humble remembrance of his past and his family. It may be not very informative, but this is not a straight documentary from the beginning, and it works as a poignant personal retrospection in its own distinctive way.