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Review: 'The Missing Picture' is another daring, innovative semi-documentary

Rithy Panh uses clay figures to recreate his childhood in a camp run by the Khmer Rouge in the inventive, haunting documentary "The Missing Picture."

Filmmaker Rithy Panh recreates his childhood in a Khmer Rouge camp in the documentary "The Missing Picture." Credit: Strand Releasing Filmmaker Rithy Panh recreates his childhood in a Khmer Rouge camp in the documentary "The Missing Picture."
Credit: Strand Releasing

‘The Missing Picture’
Director: Rithy Panh
Genre: Documentary
Rating: NR
4 (out of 5) Globes

“The Missing Picture” was nominated for this year’s Best Foreign Language Oscar, although it could have easily been nominated for the Documentary award. So which is it: documentary or fiction? The line is blurred, even though it relates filmmaker Rithy Panh’s experiences as a child surviving the Khmer Rouge genocide. It joins films like “The Act of Killing” and “Manakamana,” which find ingenious ways to get around both a lack of traditional documentary material — footage that may not exist, survivors unwilling or unable to talk, etc. — and certain tropes (talking heads, dry exposition) that have soured into unimaginative cliches.

The scheme dreamt up by Panh — who has repeatedly tackled the subject, as in “S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine” — is a doozy. Focused entirely on his experiences inside a camp, in which he lost both parents, it’s told almost entirely through dioramas populated by coarse clay figures. This is by necessity: the only footage of the incident was taken by Khmer Rouge filmmakers, who used it as propaganda or lies to the outside world. (One cameraman, we’re told, shot potentially damning footage, and was quickly executed, his body disappeared.)

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But it’s more than that. The childlike, even faintly comic, nature of the figures is, of course, a distancing effect, meant to stress horrors by abstracting them into something superficially cute and approachable. But it’s also meant to recreate one man’s nightmarish childhood at the same time it mourns it. This a filmmaker regressing into his youth to recreate the playtime of a boy robbed of his innocence — of someone who had to learn how to fend off hunger, see the inspirational messages in a father’s death-by-fasting and teach himself to disappear into his mind, the only part of him not available to his captors.

On its face “The Missing Picture” is among the most harrowing portraits of life amongst widespread murder and misery, no less because it’s so disarmingly calm. It’s at times playful, with segues into the Apollo moon landing — meant to show the desire for more prosperous nations that turned their face from Cambodia’s suffering — and the musicians that delighted audiences before the Khmer Rouge took over, and suffered the same fate as many.

Panh contributes a poetic narration track that concisely ruminates even as it pulls the piece in many fruitful directions. It can be read in many ways, including as a contemplation on what purpose films and art like “The Missing Picture” serve. He talks about seeing that which no one should see. “But if he sees it then he should tell everyone.”

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 
 
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