The Missing Picture

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In this striking and haunting documentary, Cambodian director Rithy Panh uses clay figures and archival footage to recount his experience as a survivor of Pol Pot’s labor camp. Starting with happy images of family gatherings and busy city streets, the film quickly takes a darker turn as the Khmer Rouge takes control of the country, executing opponents, artists and sending most to camps to rehabilitate them.

People get stripped of their belongings, identity and are forced to do exhausting manual work, usually working in fields and careers. The Khmers control them with hunger, rationalizing food to a strict minimum. Modern civilization becomes the enemy, Pol Pots’ followers not only rejecting technology but also medicine – they treat their patients by injecting them coconut water and unsurprisingly hospital tents turn into hospices. Surviving this ordeal is a difficult task, Mr. Panh’s relatives succumbing one after the other; as for resisting, it is useless, the only way out being to let yourself die of hunger to counter the Khmers’ control tactics.

Watching lots of documentaries, I’m always annoyed how filmmakers think having a strong subject is enough to deliver a great film, not making a lot of efforts when it comes to creating a well-structured and visually appealing work. They usually assume that offering us a series of interviews is enough to successfully convey a message and they’re wrong – one crybaby Mexican filmmaker actually sent me a long, insulting email for having expressed that his documentary was too messy to be successful. I am mentioning this, because Mr. Panh use of art – beautifully crafted clay figures – to convey his message proves to be very powerful, making The Missing Picture a unique, memorable experience. Would you remember this film, would he have used family pictures and your usual interviews? Probably not and what makes Mr. Panh’s so distinctive is the fact that he truly thought about what would be the best way to tell his story. And if you wonder if these clay figures are a distraction, the answer is no – they are finely used as a vehicle for the narration and they act as beautiful, pagan-like symbols, offering probably a stronger resonance for the powerful, harrowing words.

Besides the horror of the living conditions and the historical aspect, this documentary makes another point about propaganda. Several times, the filmmaker shows us archival footage of people working with a big smile on their face, whether they are digging or carrying big rocks, contrasting with what he’s telling us. These images were shown around the world to showcase the greatness of Pol Pot’s regime and created some kind of Romanesque vision of communism, which was quickly embraced by leftists. Mr. Panh particularly mentions how these images were welcome in Paris at the time, which I find particularly interesting, having just watched Olivier Assayas’ Something in the Air. In Mr. Assayas’ movie, we could see young activists watching those kinds of footage and get motivated to further their political action. The movie ended with this political dream fading and pairing it with The Missing Picture, it gives you an idea about how some political ideals can be based on wrong information vehicled by propaganda.

Whether you are into politics, history or not, Mr. Panh’s film is nothing short of remarkable, leaving an unforgettable mark.

Director: Rithy Panh – Running Time: 1:32 – Year: 2013 – Country: Cambodia, France.

Watch the trailer below:

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Fred Thom

Fred Thom

Editor-in-Chief/Founder/Film Critic at Plume Noire
The founder and editor-in-chief of Plume Noire, Fred Thom covers film festivals and writes movie reviews. He was born in Marseilles, France and is now living in Los Angeles, California.