by Ken B.
The Missing Picture is one of those great movies that isn’t immediately apparently great. The true magnitude of the undertaking, the intensely personal but globally significant story told, and all of the other notable aspects of Rithy Panh’s documentary don’t fully begin to sink in until after the credits have rolled. Panh recalls his experiences as a boy under the Khmer Rouge, a period of communism and genocide in Cambodia under Pol Pot, which began in April 1975. Panh uses a narrator (Randal Douc in the French language version, Jean-Baptiste Phou in the English one, also the one reviewed here) to describe stories while they are shown in some variation on screen, never traditional interview footage, but a mix of archival video and scenes made from clay figures and miniature props. The result is a creative, poignant, and altogether excellent motion picture experience.
The horrors of the regime; the struggles of poverty, limited freedoms, and whatever other injustices arise through the movie’s 95 minutes are mixed with recollections of Panh’s childhood before the capturing of Phnom Penh. Panh left the country shortly after Pot’s regime began, but this does not mean that he fled unscathed – not at all. As a result, he never feels detached, with each moment feeling close – very, very close, obviously for the most irrevocably personal and irreversible tragedies, but through everything else as well. Here is a movie of great intent, reminding a world audience that these eras affected wide swaths of innocent people, and what went on beyond their control should not be forgotten.
I liked how The Missing Picture breaks from conventional documentary formula, creating a product all the more enjoyable, and more difficult to forget. There’s a certain quiet, disturbing quality about the use of small hand-crafted and painted clay statuettes to depict people and events here, placing otherwise unsuspecting creations as the visual aid of turmoil, as apt a metaphor as any for the millions of innocent lives caught in the crossfire of any brutal regime. The skill on hand is obvious, showing what could appear to a viewer to be a nation’s story, or a person’s story, but is really both, intertwined and shown in a truly ingenious way. You might wonder if using such a method to make your movie could come off as superficial, pointless, or cloying. I believe such a misguided movie could have definitely existed, but we have been spared such a failed documentary. Panh knows what he’s doing, and for that we should be immensely thankful.