t h e m i s s i n g p i c t u r e
3rd January 2014
6th January 2014
2013 was a pretty decent year for documentaries. Blackfish and How to Survive a Plague were significant entries with more traditional methods and The Act of Killing was one of the more significant film entries, let alone documentary entries, with its entirely unique view of genocide. Though to be honest, I’m still unsure as to whether I’ve been conned or not with the latter entry. I guess the point is that for methods of grabbing an audience’s attention, documentaries have changed the game somewhat recently.
So it seems an appropriate time to have Rithy Panh's latest documentary chronicling the atrocities committed by Cambodia's Khmer Rouge release in our cinemas. The Missing Picture is Panh's first movie to delve into his personal experience of the horrors, following on from his 2011 face to face with Khmer Rouge party secretary Duch; Duch, Master of the Forges of Hell. Panh of course has more than a small amount of personal connection to the regime, having been born in Phnom Penh and subsequently evicted from it in 1975 along with millions of other ordinary Cambodians.
Using a combination of Khmer Rouge shot archive footage and immaculately sculpted clay dioramas, along with his own script (voiced by Randal Douc), Panh tells the terrible story of his early upbringing and his subsequent internment on one of the regime's many farms. During the four years he spent working he watched as his entire family expired from overwork and malnutrition. That he managed to escape the horror is nothing short of miraculous, that he has subsequently faced the horror over a number of films is truly impressive.
It is this willingness, or more likely, necessity to face the evil that so diverted (it's tempting to say derailed but Panh's spirit of survival would make this disingenuous) his life that makes this documentary so impressive. Panh has created hundreds of intricate characters to populate his scenes, all carefully sculpted in clay and lovingly painted. The vivid colours of the initial scenes quickly give way to depressing greys as the characters are washed away by the regime, to be replaced only with an agrarian collective. The clay scenes are variously presented as foreground to either beautiful watercolour backgrounds or scenes from the Khmer Rouge's propaganda films. The retrieval and restoration of these films is in itself impressive, salvaged from the ravaged celluloid left when the regime crumbled.
Over these images Panh's terrible recollections of the events are voiced in the most somber of tones. This is difficult material, dealing with events that are almost the definition of human cruelty and which frequently threaten to overwhelm the audience but Panh's core is a quietly defiant, hopeful one. His character repeatedly stands out in the dark grey scenes, wearing a garish polka-dot shirt or occasionally gliding above the horrors depicted below. The Khmer Rouge scenes are contrasted starkly with vividly coloured scenes of happy family life before the revolution. One particularly poignant scene shows Panh's family before the flag, it then fades to a greatly reduced version repeatedly as his family submits to the horror.
The Missing Picture is an amazing achievement. The clay dioramas stand up in their own right as wonderful, sometimes terribly wonderful, pieces of art. They bring a new way of looking at an old horror and with the scenes of the artist's hands sculpting the figures the level of detail and personalty is highlighted. Moreover of course this is a deeply personal, deeply heartfelt diary of a young man dealing with horror that cannot be imagined, from the point of view of a grown man attempting to deal with the memories that horror left him. Panh is clearly and understandably a haunted man but his way of dealing with the pictures that he cannot forget is to present them to us, to share in the terror that lives with him to this day. The actual missing picture of the title is undoubtedly many things but the one that stood out most for me was the lack of witnesses for the terrified youngster. Ultimately left alone in a system that deliberately voided personality, he was left to retreat into his happy memories of time spent in a movie studio a relative worked in. Happy memories forever tainted by the knowledge that pretty much all of the artists were swiftly murdered by the regime.
We should be immensely grateful that Panh survived and that those treasured memories inspired him to continue to keep alive those terrible days; as he points out towards the end of the film, variations on the theme persist to this day. Personal, immensely moving, innovative and ultimately hopeful, The Missing Picture deserves to be seen.
Check out the trailer here.