The Academy Award-nominated The Missing Picture approaches an unbelievably horrific episode in history with intimacy and grace. In this first-person documentary, director Rithy Panh uses hand-carved dolls, dioramas with plastic aquarium plants, and scratched-up old propaganda footage to recount his childhood in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge in 1975-79. While the Communist dictatorship's devastating wrath has been well-documented in narrative films like 1984's The Killing Fields, Panh's unusual filmmaking techniques and personal point-of-view make this one a standout.
About those dolls… footage of the crudely carved, painted figurines make up the bulk of the film, with narration of the era's atrocities contrasting against the clean, clinical tableau Panh has set up for the dolls. Since Panh himself was a child when the Khmer Rouge took over in 1975, having his story told this way makes sense - it gives the film a personal, evocative feel that would be lost using more conventional methods. The Missing Picture is Panh's attempt to reconcile what actually happened - how the Khmer Rouge came to power and the differences between its reality and the propaganda it sent out - with his own firsthand account of the tragedies. As a result, there's a diaphanous, "did I really experience this, or was it a dream?" undercurrent running through the entire film.
Panh's recollections, I imagine, mirror what many other Cambodian's went through after the uprising - first a confusion as to what was going on, then horror, followed by numbness and finally utter desolation. Cambodia's pre-revolution capitalist society is seen in Panh's early childhood memories observing his director father filming on a movie set, along with busy shopping trips in the city, lively outdoor parties and live music. In the initial weeks of the Khmer Rouge takeover, families like Panh's were told to temporarily relocate just outside the cities to protect themselves from American bombing missions. It was a lie, of course. The evacuees were sent on a miles-long marches on foot to rural areas, where their personal belongings would be destroyed and replaced with identical black outfits. The people were then set up in crude labor camps designed to subjugate the populace into a docile mass of farming labor. Meanwhile, the minions of Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot destroyed the banks, schools and other institutions in the urban areas, setting up a propaganda ministry which pumped out films showing an organized, happily agrarian populace (clips from which are excerpted throughout The Missing Picture). Pahn brings a personal angle to the atrocities committed in his camp, which included the mass execution of dissenters (which, perversely, the Khmer Rouge also filmed), gradual starvation, and a toxic environment of distrust which had family members turning against each other. Khmer tells of an episode in his camp where a woman in his village was accused by her own son of stealing mangoes - a situation resolved with the authorities taking the woman out into the jungle, never to be seen again. It's a very grim, repetitive watch, yet there's also a glimmer of hope in people like Panh who found an inner courage to go on living in the most dire of circumstances. Eventually, Panh became one of the lucky ones, escaping the country in 1979 at the age of fifteen.
Although The Missing Picture serves well as an effective and unique memory piece, it's not made to everyone's tastes. Many will undoubtedly be put off by the passive, blasé narration and the glum repetitiveness of Panh's hopeless situation (it could have used some judicious trimming in its second half). It's a despairing downer of a film that ultimately celebrates the small things that make life worth living - dignity, hope, some food for sustenance, a little fun.
Digitally photographed, The Missing Picture has been transferred to DVD in good-looking 16:9 anamorphic widescreen. Colors are lush and lifelike, while the dark levels are satisfyingly rich without getting too murky. While the detailed photography would have come across better on Blu Ray, Strand Releasing's DVD edition sports a fairly good visual presentation.
This disc offers two audio options, both well mixed in 5.1 Surround. One is the original French-language narration by Randal Douc, while the other presents the same soundtrack but with English narration spoken by Jean-Baptiste Phou. Optional subtitles in English (translating the French soundtrack) and English SDH are also provided.
Aside from the choice of two separate narrations, the only bonus material is a Theatrical Trailer for this and a handful of other DVDs from Strand Releasing.
"I seek my childhood like a lost picture, or rather it seeks me." Rithy Panh's unusual memory piece The Missing Picture uses carved figurines and found footage to recount the director-screenwriter's boyhood during Cambodia's devastating Khmer Rouge regime in the '70s. While it could have more effective with a shorter running time, this highly personal, sensitive take on one of recent history's most shameful political takeovers still serves as a powerful statement. Recommended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.