Director: Rithy Panh
I’m starting the “C”s by returning to Southeast Asia, a region last visited on this blog in my entry for Burma. Rithy Panh’s The Missing Picture is the first documentary film I’ve entered for this blog, and was selected as Cambodia’s submission for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Picture in 2013. It made the final shortlist, but ultimately lost to Italy’s La Grande Bellezza.
The film is an account of the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge government in Cambodia between 1975-79. Along with archival footage, we see Panh use clay figures, carved and painted by hand, to dramatise scenes from the time. There are hundreds of figurines, and countless painstakingly arranged dioramas. Labour camps, ruined villages, overcrowded hospitals, and muddy bombsites alike are recreated with meticulous detail.
Following a violent revolution, families are marched out of cities and forced to toil in rice fields to build Pol Pot’s communist, agrarian utopia. They are stripped of any personal belongings, dressed in identical black clothes and robbed of their individuality. Meanwhile, American bombs lay waste to the Cambodian countryside as spillover from the war in neighbouring Vietnam. It’s a story that the director knows well, because it’s his own. Large sections of the film are autobiographical, and the film feels like Panh’s effort to exorcise his demons and come to turns with the tragedies in his past.
The Missing Picture eschews many documentary staples. There are no interviews, no text screens, and no live-action footage of Cambodia in the present day. There’s just the clay figures, some archival footage, and the first-person narration.
Many moments in this film are haunting and heartbreaking. The few moments of hope and inspiration are often bittersweet and tainted by a heavy price. In one scene Panh’s father chooses to starve to death rather than suffer the indignity of eating animal food, and in doing so teaches his son that there is always a form of resistance, no matter how small. The greatest achievement of The Missing Picture is the way it captures the scope and scale of the events and their devastating impact on the Cambodian people as a whole, while still maintaining a grounded and personal story of one young boy’s experiences.