The Missing Picture, Cambodia’s official selection for the best foreign language film category, is one of the more surprising nominations at this year’s Oscars. It is a documentary about the atrocities that Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge committed between 1975 and 1979, but it is not a history lesson. While you get a certain sense of the horrific events that occurred under Pol Pot’s regime, it is an extremely personal film about dealing with painful memories and the loss of innocence through violence. Director Rithy Panh tells his own remarkable story: On the day before his 12th birthday, his hometown Phnom Penh was taken by the communist party Khmer Rouge and the entire town was deported into labour camps. Panh spent the next four years in these camps, enduring incredible hardships, famine and the loss of everyone he knew.
He chooses the form of the essay film, using a first-person narration as a surrogate for his own voice. He illustrates the words with an agonizing soundtrack, the little stock-footage that has survived the period and most interestingly with little immobile clay figures. Numerous, elaborate models were built, recreating moments of Panh’s past. These sets are populated by hauntingly beautiful dolls. It is left up to the imagination of the spectator to conjure the images of the violence.
Watching The Missing Picture is like being privy to a therapy session in which the patient attempts to come to terms with his past. A recurring theme is the loss (or rather the theft) of Panh’s childhood, which has preoccupied him throughout his adult life. The dolls, which are essentially toys, thus have a triple function within the film: visualize events of which no footage exists, allow Panh to access painful memories more easily and bring back his childhood to a certain degree.
This concept is very original and thought-provoking. The emotional impact of a simple image of an expressionless face carved in clay is surprisingly powerful and you get a genuine insight into the director’s mind and his utter contempt for ideology.
On the whole, The Missing Picture never fails to be interesting, but is not as engaging as it should be and lacks energy. The numerous shots of the motionless figures are beautiful, yet not very cinematic and slightly repetitive. The cinematography in these shots is not the most interesting either and slow, horizontal pans are overused. The narration, whose content gets increasingly passionate and opinionated as the film goes on, never quite makes up for this deficit.
It is an unusual thing to say about a film, but The Missing Picture feels in many ways more like a (great) museum exhibition about grief and memory than a piece of cinema, and on these merits it is an interesting, different artistic achievement. Rating: ★★★