This capsule review was originally published during the 51st New York Film Festival on October 8, 2013. We are reposting it because it opens in theaters today.
The Missing Picture, Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh’s new documentary, finds beauty and brilliance in the darkest of places. Panh, who grew up during the violent atrocities of the Khmer Rouge during the late 1970s, is interested in the period’s lost images. Photographs were taken at the countless executions/murders committed by the Communist militants, but many of these are lost. Moreover, Panh wonders whether either the recorded images of this regime or his own scattered memories are capable of telling the whole truth. And so he reenacts his experience of the Cambodian Genocide with un-animated clay figures, representing himself, his family, the guards at the labor camp where he spent part of his childhood and the whole re-named nation of Kampuchea.
Some of Panh’s storytelling is hard to take. He’s unafraid to tackle the more graphic, disturbing parts of his memory. Sometimes the accompanying clay figurines soften the blow, other times they hit even harder. The immediate impact of these simple, often smiling doll-like objects is a recreation of Panh’s childhood perspective, but he takes them well beyond that. Despite their lack of motion, these dioramas not only pack an emotional punch but create many layers of symbolism ripe for interpretation. The Missing Picture is a film that will yield new insights on every successive viewing.
Finally, the crucial turn to the film is the way it relates to cinema itself. While the images in The Missing Picture are predominantly centered upon its clay Cambodia, Panh also presents the Khmer Rouge version of the landscape of its revolution. In one particularly potent moment, the residents of the clay labor camp are gathered together by soldiers to watch a real 1970s propaganda film. The dialog between the mendacious official version of the Genocide and Panh’s incomplete memories becomes a meditation on truth, cinema and memory that can enrich our understanding of both Cambodia’s past and that of the world.