Note: There is an English and French version of this film. I watched the French version with subtitles.
The Missing Picture is a film of significant prestige, as an Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, winner of Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival, and official selection at the Toronto International Film Festival, AFI Film Festival, New York Film Festival and Telluride Film Festival. This French-Cambodian film is Rithy Panh’s deeply personal experience of Pol Pot’s Cambodian communist regime.
Pol Pot, a dictator who presided over the Khmer Rouge, implemented radical communism in Cambodia from 1975 - 1979. Approximately 25% of the Cambodian population died during those four years causing a total of 1-3 million deaths. Panh’s story begins when the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, in 1975. Other than some old documentary footage, The Missing Picture is animated with clay figurines. Panh portrays the city as one would would in a period film, but everyone the city and people are literally made out of clay. I can’t put my finger on why, but Panh’s figurines and diorama sets filled me with a sense of wonder and a sense of dread. Something about the nostalgia evoked by the figurines, sets, and narration bring forth a sense of oddly imminent destruction. This mood is both beautiful and horrifying to behold.
The activities of the Khmer Rouge resemble the troubled beginnings of the Chinese Communist Party in its first several decades, also experiencing re-education camps, propaganda campaigns, commodification of human beings, and profound suffering. If not already familiar with these events in Cambodia or their Chinese counterparts, imagine aspects of the Holocaust without the deliberate murder of citizens. People were violently forced to align with a single party and its ideals, experienced hard labor if they did not, died by the millions (although due to societal failure broadly, not deliberate murder for the most part), and were dehumanized on a mass scale. The Missing Picture has the viewer experience the difficulties, by walking through this teenager’s personal experiences. Watching the film becomes challenging, of course, but it’s a worthy challenge. To understand what happened in Cambodia is worth the struggle.
The scenes in the film mostly comprise Panh’s particular memories from ages 13 to 17. One moment that stands out at the beginning is when the director sits in front of the camera on a chair, alongside his diorama and figurines, and picks up a figurine. He says, “His suit is white, his tie is dark. I want to hold him close. He is my father.” This moment is indicative of the personal nature of Panh’s telling of events. These moments are mixed with news and documentary footage, mostly from Khmer Rouge propaganda. I tended to prefer the former, not needing to be reminded of the reality of the story.
Despite the strange clay figurine animation, The Missing Picture never feels silly or gimmicky, just eerie. To know that these figurines represent people is chilling. The Missing Picture feels like a necessary and partly riveting history lesson through the deeply personal lens of a skilled filmmaker.