DIRECTED BY: Rithy Panh
FEATURING: Jean-Baptiste Phou (English narration), Randal Douc (French narration)
PLOT: Rithy Panh remembers his boyhood growing up in a Cambodian work camp under Pol Pot’s murderous regime, using clay figures of his own design to recreate horrors from the past.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This handcrafted memorial of genocide is a heartbreaking and dreamlike testimonial to perseverance in the face of incomprehensible evil, but despite being both off the beaten path and worthy of your attention, it’s not what we could truly term “weird.”
COMMENTS: Strictly speaking, mass murder is never entirely rational, but there was something especially horrific about the crimes of the Khmer Rogue and the way they blended an absurdly suicidal ideology with naked hypocrisy. Pol Pot’s regime allowed thousands of people to die of malaria because they would not treat the ill with “capitalist” medicine. The people were asked to work in “rice fields” set up in deserts, dying of hunger and exhaustion today so that millions might be fed in some far-off tomorrow. If the children sent to work in one particularly tough camp could not extract three cubic meters of dirt per day, their quota was raised to five cubic meters. It was a utopia of perfect equality, except that the overseers in the red neckerchiefs carried guns and never went hungry.
Since there is no filmed record of the horrors of Cambodia’s killing fields, other than propaganda movies showing smiling workers loading sacks of grain onto trucks (the narrator suggests that they may be props filled with sand), Rithy Panh recreates his experiences in the death camps by carving clay figures and arranging them in dioramas, which he then films with bitterly poetic narration. This is the missing picture—a record of misery that went unrecorded, because the powers that be didn’t want it to be seen. The crude, pocked and weathered figurines with frozen expressions for make perfect victims. They are nameless masses, but no matter how blank their features, each is somehow an individual, whether the individuality comes from a unique pose or some imperfection in their sculpture. They are unable to express the horror of their situation, but this makes them the perfect dumb witnesses to inexpressible horror. They sometimes interact with rare footage of Kampuchea in the 1970s. Carved figures of red-scarved soldiers stand quietly in front of black and white archival war footage; newly enlisted workers stare out from cattle cars as back-projected scenery races by. The soundscape—melancholy Cambodian folk music, dark ambient music with exotic instrumentation—combines with the quiet, almost resigned narration to make the picture play like a muted nightmare.
Technically, The Missing Picture is a documentary, but that designation seems too limiting for such ambitious nonfiction. Picture (re)creates more than it documents. Watch this with the (slightly weirder, and far more acerbic) The Act of Killing for an unconventional and disturbing documentary double-feature about the capacity of man to deal death to his fellow man, from the right or the left, from action or from neglect. “To survive, you must hide a strength within yourself… for a picture can be stolen, a thought cannot.”
The Missing Picture was Cambodia’s first-ever submission to the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film. It was passed over.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: