The opening images — rusted film canisters, unspooled movie
reels spilling across the floor like some beautiful, serpentine ruin of a
sculpture — signals that The Missing
Picture is like no other film you’ve seen. In this autobiographical
documentary, Rithy Panh uses clay miniatures to reenact the imprisonment and
death of his family under Pol Pot’s regime in 1970’s Cambodia, but that
description makes it sound like one more hybrid documentary.
The hybrid, with fictional techniques shaping a non-fiction
film, is a flourishing genre, but by its nature no two are anything alike. In the
most famous recent example of the form, Joshua Oppenheimer’s potent The Act of Killing, murderers reenact
the Indonesian genocide of the 1960’s as if they were old movies.
Superficially, it’s easy to lump the two together as political documentaries
using fiction, but the harsh, eye-opening Act
of Killing is worlds away from sad, lyrical Missing Picture. The Act of
Killing is about criminals facing their past; The Missing Picture is at once a survivor’s story, a political
statement and an eloquent meditation on images and memory.
In voiceover, a narrator explains that no images exist as evidence of
what his family endured. At 13, he was sent with his parents and siblings to a
labor camp. His father stopped eating in rebellion and died; his sister and
mother starved to death. The miniature figures — we see some being carved and painted
in close-up, as the remembrance and recreation takes shape before our eyes – restore
the horrors that were never photographed.
But The Missing
Picture is more layered and complex than any simple reenactment. The narration,
written by Christophe Dataille and read in French by Randal Douc, is artfully
done. “I seek my childhood like a lost picture. Or rather it seeks
me,” the narrator says. The film itself is Panh’s reassembling of the past
so that he can understand it, share it, and as he explicitly says, try to be
relieved of its burden by his testimony.
The colorful miniatures are interspersed and at times
layered over rough black and white news film from the period, the kind of film
we’ve become accustomed to. Miniatures of starving people
too weak to move, in rows of cots, makes us see the horrors with fresh vision. And
the specificity of Panh’s memories of the camp make the film even more personal
than it is political. “From now on a saucepan is individualistic. It is
forbidden to own one,” the narrator says.
Panh never animates his miniatures, a choice that enhances
their power. He creates still lifes, the perfect approach for displaying the images
he has recreated. They are not the missing film or even photographs that might have been. Like The Missing Picture itself, they are
small, exquisite works of art infused with living memory.