Much like last year’s masterful The Act of Killing (TMT Review), Rithy Panh’s The Missing Picture uses cinema’s uncanny ability to bring memories to life, to breathe new life into the past by recontexualizing it through the framework of the personal and the political. In the process,the film brings a new understanding to tragic historical events through unique imagistic strategies and by approaching the documentary form through emotional and imaginative means rather than purely as a means for factual regurgitation. While its approach is neither as radical nor effective as Joshua Oppenheimer’s masterpiece, The Missing Picture’s use of miniatures to recreate many of the horrific events suffered by Panh and his family at the hands of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s is remarkably effective in capturing fragments of memories and transforming them into fully-formed politically and ideologically charged images.
Combined with archival footage, Panh’s clay miniatures help to fill in the blanks of the incomplete visual history of the Cambodian genocide during Pol Pot’s reign from 1975 to 1979, countering the images of Pot leisurely walking amongst his loyal subjects, coyly smiling while they chant for him with dioramas that, although less “real” than the propaganda footage, contain an emotional and historical truth that had not yet been recorded. These miniatures — inanimate, yet frozen in eternal terror — are perfect reflections of the powerlessness of the Cambodian people and the various ways the Khmer Rouge’s revolution changed them into little more than slaves. The painstaking care with which these miniatures are created — detailed with footage of their being carved and painted interspersed throughout — mirrors the film’s meticulous reconstruction and reclaiming of the past, not only bringing substance to memory but some level of justice and empowerment to those lost in the tragedies and the loss of the genocide itself in the global consciousness.
Panh’s poetic and melancholy musings, voiced beautifully by Randal Douc, convert these still miniatures into objective correlatives, making the people’s suffering palpable and bringing immediacy to a history that is too often glossed over. From the forced mass exodus from Pnomh Penh to the brutality of the labor camps and the death of Panh’s brother, The Missing Picture is a powerful rumination of a shared and personal history. It is not meant to be a historical examination of the reign of the Khmer Rouge, but rather an intricate detailing of one man’s memory of it and his attempt to come to terms to the wide-ranging atrocities committed against the Cambodian people during that painfully long 5-year regime. In not providing the full context surrounding the events Panh documents, however, the film does undercut its own effectiveness, and unlike The Act of Killing, which was less concerned with the Indonesian genocide itself than with the memories of the men responsible for enacting it and the actual, well, act of killing, The Missing Picture aims to present more of a complete historical framework, but ultimately focuses a bit too much on events as Panh remembers them without delving into the enough of the specifics of the Khmer Rouge.
Despite that minor complaint, however, The Missing Picture remains quite moving through both its personal content and its approaching its topic with a thirst for the Herzogian “ecstatic truth,” as Panh embraces the essential in his quest to unearth new truths about events that occurred nearly four decades ago:
I haven’t been home since April 17, 1975. Yet I remember every detail — the paintings, the doors, the jugs, the hallways. My house became a gambling dive, a karaoke, then a brothel. It too was voided, torn from its history. There is no truth. There is only cinema. The revolution is cinema. –Rithy Panh
For Panh, cinema is the means and his film not the end, but rather the journey from the beginning (or as Godard said, “Cinema is not the station. Cinema is the train.”) in search of these images, these missing pictures that can make sense of the Khmer Rouge and the atrocities they committed. Even if Panh comes up short in his search, The Missing Picture is a fascinating and vital film of a history that too often remains a footnote or a death toll in the margin. This film, if only for a short while, has its revenge on Pot and his cronies while paying homage to all those lost in the senseless violence.