Following “S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine” and “Duch, Master of the Forges of Hell,” Rithy Panh grapples with the horrors of the Cambodian genocide on more intimately unsettling terms in “The Missing Picture.” A sobering chronicle of Panh’s teenage years under the Pol Pot dictatorship, the film is a brave act of witness complicated by the documaker’s decision to re-create his experiences using clay figurines, a tricky aesthetic device that raises fascinating and problematic questions of representation. Sufficiently distinguished from Panh’s other fine work on the subject, and bolstered by strong black-and-white archival footage, “Picture” would be assured of further fest play and strong broadcast interest even if it hadn’t won the top Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes.
As he describes in the always composed, sometimes bitterly ironic narration that saturates almost every frame (the text was co-written with Christophe Bataille and read in French by Randal Douc), Panh was 13 on April 17, 1975, the day the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh. Rounding up local civilians and deporting them to agricultural labor camps as part of a grueling “re-education” campaign, Pol Pot’s communist regime sought to wipe out class divisions and individual aspirations in service of a supposedly glorious Kampuchean Revolution.
The stark reality of the matter is illustrated in a series of detailed dioramas that constitute the bulk of the film. Populated by intricate clay figurines that represent Panh, his family members and many, many other victims, these re-creations are meant to stand in for the unfilmed, unphotographed images that inspired the film’s title: the concrete dikes and rice fields where these former city-dwellers were forced to work; the meager rice yields they were forced to live on, leading to widespread malnutrition; and the brutal executions that occurred on a matter-of-fact basis.
The result is a carefully aestheticized catalog of atrocities that, as lovingly shot by d.p. Prum Mesa and somewhat insistently scored by Marc Marder, generates its own strange, complicated line of ethical inquiry. Beautifully hand-carved and painted by sculpted Sarith Mang, the figurines look remarkably human with their sharply individualized features, their speechlessness and immobility underscoring the collective helplessness of a people subjected to methodical extermination. At the same time, there’s something unmistakably distancing and slightly precious about these static artworks, brightly colored and fastidiously arranged in a painful but sanitized simulacrum of reality.
Students of Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah” will have an interesting time parsing the representational pros and cons of Panh’s approach, and the director seems well aware that his chosen conceit is not without its complications. “The Missing Picture” invites a rare level of intellectual engagement on this subject. Panh’s free-roaming narration contemplates the sad fact that all the filmed material from the crucial 1975-79 period (shown in battered film canisters and generously sampled here) is pure propaganda, glorifying Pol Pot (also known by his nom de guerre, “Brother No. 1”) and shot by Khmer Rouge cameramen. And while Panh’s desire to document the catastrophe haunts and motivates the entire film, he acknowledges that such images may in fact be better left unseen.
Despite or perhaps because of the somberness of the subject matter, Panh includes cherished memories of lighter, happier times — going to the movies, for instance, before the cinemas were burned down — that only throw the cruel oppressiveness of his later torments into harsher relief. Working with co-editor Marie-Christine Rougerie, the director brings a certain stylistic playfulness to bear on his limited materials, at times juxtaposing figurines and archival footage in the same frame to alternately disorienting and haunting effect.
One of the most moving stories re-enacted here is the filmmaker’s memory of how his father chose, with great dignity, to die of starvation rather than to continue subsisting on rations fit for animals. “Sometimes, a small gesture is all it takes to say no,” Panh notes. Whatever one takes away from “The Missing Picture,” there can be no doubt that its very existence — rising from the ashes of a system designed to obliterate, among other things, intellectual and artistic achievement — is itself a powerful form of resistance.