The Missing Picture (2013)

Review first published by Film4

Synopsis Directed and co-written by Rithy Panh (S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, 2002), this documentary fashions its truth about the Kampuchean killing fields from file footage and clay models.

Review We might imagine history as a fixed, solid entity capable of being reassembled from archival material, but in fact truth is something more malleable than this. Several recent documentaries have presented real memories, invisible and unspeakable, in overtly fictional forms – think the animated sequences in Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir (2008) and Marc Wiese’s Camp 14: Total Control Zone (2012), or the outrageously staged reenactments in Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (2012). Rithy Panh’s The Missing Picture similarly resorts to the plastic arts for its oblique approach to bleak truths. For, when a search for filmed evidence of Khmer Rouge atrocities proved fruitless, Panh decided to fill in this missing picture with elaborate dioramas and clay figurines that offer his personal recollections of a childhood brought to abject ruin in the Cambodia of 1975-9.

Panh sets these moulded memories and (sometimes literal) flights of fancy against the official slogans and propaganda films of ‘Democratic Kampuchea’, suggesting that the latter, sardonically deconstructed by Randal Douc’s voiceover, are far more unreal in the way that they dress up genocide as utopia. “At last I see the Revolution they promised us,” he comments bitterly on footage of agrarian abundance, “it exists only on film.” Panh’s own carefully fabricated tableaux are designed to resurrect and exorcise the ghosts of those – including his own family – who were buried in the Killing Fields, and to give creative expression, at last, to thoughts and ideas that he was unable to voice under Pol Pot.

“As for dirt,” says the voiceover, “there is never enough” – but the same dirt which Panh as a boy had scattered over mass graves is here used to craft a fitting clay memorial in the very medium – film – that Panh has now reclaimed for his own, lest we forget.

In A Nutshell The best film about atrocity, memory, national trauma and primeval dirt since Patricio Guzmán’s Nostalgia For The Light (2010).

Anton Bitel