By Dirk Sonniksen | June 11, 2014
Director: Rithy Panh
Writer: Christophe Bataille (commentary), Rithy Panh
The Missing Picture documents one man’s tale of the Cambodian genocide that took place after the Khmer Rouge captured the city of Phnom Penh in 1975. Director Rithy Panh searches for the missing picture, an image that might accurately express or quantify the horrors experienced by the Cambodian people at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Using sparce bits of archival footage and clay figurines, Panh attempts to chronicle his descent into a hellish existence under the rule of Pol Pot, the leader of Democratic Kampuchea. Panh’s account is one of family, of slavery, of death, and of unspeakable violence that is fortunately only implied throughout the documentary.
There is very little footage of the horrendous violence as very little footage exists. What the audience does get is a look at filmmaking Khmer Rouge style. Grainy black and white shots of workers are interspersed with Panh’s clay figures, individuals supposedly working for the greater good, although it’s a hard pill to swallow when the greater good is nothing more than forced marches through rice fields. If one were lucky, you lived to work another day—if not, you became one of the many tortured and killed by the Khmer Rouge, a sadistic bunch capable of inflicting profound misery on any that questioned their ridiculous philosophy. We are fortunate to be spared the more violent moments, but are instead given a far more telling image of these atrocities in the form of thousands of photos of men, women, and children, taken before they were tortured and executed.
Panh’s film seems to be a self-discovery, a way to work through years of trauma. Even decades after the fall of Phnom Penh, Panh seems unable to really grasp what has happened and can anyone blame him? There is a tense undercurrent that flows throughout The Missing Picture, an anxiety that paints a deathly pall on the narrator’s every word. It’s as if there are happy times just around the corner, but you can never get there, never see beyond the despair. Panh teases a bit with childlike clay figurines and you may question the approach, but then you realize—it’s therapy. It’s an exercise to see past thousands of faces of dead that line the walls of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, an exercise in futility perhaps, but an attempt to make sense of the murderous reign of the Khmer Rouge.