‘The Missing Picture’ in Filmmaker’s Personal History

Rithy Panh’s latest film, “The Missing Picture,” is both a historical documentary about the murderous regime of the Khmer Rouge and a chapter out of the Cambodian filmmaker’s own personal diary.

The winner of this year’s Cannes Film Festival award Un Certain Regard—which recognizes films with unique style and aesthetics—“The Missing Picture” features scenes from the Khmer Rouge regime recreated using clay figurines, interspersed with archival propaganda footage from the Pol Pot regime.

It is Mr. Panh’s look back at how life was before the revolutionary soldiers entered Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, which makes the film so memorable, enabling the audience to feel a deep sense of personal loss of individuality as a result of the regime’s ultra-Marxist ideology.

The strong juxtaposition of the Khmer Rouge clay figurines—all in the foreboding shades of army green, mud brown and black—and the variety of hues splashed in Mr. Panh’s vision of Phnom Penh before the war is only one indication of this loss. Another comes from the clay figures themselves as inanimate objects.

Yet, as the 90-minute film progresses, the audience will see that each figurine is brought to life just by the carved gauntness in its face, to signify hunger, or its weary shoulders, portraying defeat.

Mr. Panh, who was 13 when the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh, appears himself, as a short statuette that grows thinner and smaller as each of his family members passes away, either from hunger or sickness.

Sporting red, pink and yellow dotted shirts, Mr. Panh’s figurine stands out among the sea of black.

“To survive, you must hide within yourself,” Mr. Panh narrated, a technique he used to get through the sorrow of his father’s decision to starve himself instead of continuing to “eat food fit for animals,” and when his mother chose to lay down in the hospital and never get up again after his sister’s death.

With each devastating moment, the film constantly transports the audience back to happier times.

The music of the 1960s and 1970s infuses these scenes, as well as the sounds of children playing. Mr. Panh’s father is often seen with a book in his hands, as a poem is narrated. In such environments, the unmoving clay figurines come alive in themselves.

The faces of his family, of the villagers in his Khmer Rouge collective, and of the cadre who remain well fed while the people starve, remain fixed in his memory, Mr. Panh said Thursday in an interview.

“It is like a sculpture that stays in my mind,” he said. “If you animate these figurines, the film is lost. It will be like a 3-D film and you would lose a poetic sense…. You would lose the sense of memory.”

Yet the nature of memory is that it is elusive and never 100 percent reflective of past lives.

The eponymous missing picture that Mr. Panh seeks could be the friends and family that he lost to the Pol Pot regime; it could also be an understanding of the motivations of the regime and its cadre.

For Mr. Panh, the missing picture appears to be the hole within himself that he is always attempting to fill with his films—many of which are about the Khmer Rouge.

“I think you are always running after one picture or two pictures. Maybe the missing picture does not exist,” he said. “But even if it exists, it might be impossible for me to show it.”

“The Missing Picture” will be screened daily at the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center on Street 200 from August 3 to 10 at 6:30 p.m.

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