For many years, filmmaker Rithy Panh had been looking for a picture taken during the Khymer Rouge rule over Cambodia in the 1970s. When his search proved fruitless, Panh did the only thing he could do; recreate the image. Using clay figurines, Panh tells his story of Pol Pot’s time as Brother No. 1 and the effect this has had throughout his entire life.
The Missing Picture was shown at the Cannes Film Festival last year, where it took the top prize in the Un Certain Regard section of the festival. Panh’s film reminds us of facts we know to be true, but tells the story in an abstract and entirely personal way.
Throughout the film Panh talks about his childhood at the hands of the Khymer Rouge, and the fact that the memories of his youth still haunt him. This is mirrored in the method Panh uses to tell his story; instead of recreating the images of his youth using actors or models, Panh creates scenes from clay figurines, giving the entire film a feel of childlikeness mixed with adult knowledge and horror. In using these figurines, Panh also allows the audience to distance themselves from the revulsion of the image on screen and instead take in the commentary, which explains just how strong the emotional and physical effect of this time had on the filmmaker.
Panh takes in the historical facts of the time, but quickly moves the film toward the personal; the story of his family and their fight to survive the oppressive and cruel Khymer Rouge regime. It is often the microcosm that helps us to understand the bigger picture, and that is certainly the case here. By bringing the film down to the story of one family, the audience can suddenly understand the time, without the need for graphic torture scenes, explosions or violence. In fact, it is the perceived calmness of the scenes that makes the film so unsettling, and leaves a lasting impression on the viewer, in particular the sequence that deals with the death of Panh’s father.
As well as this, Panh’s style of filmmaking also highlights the fact that any footage shot of Cambodia between 1975-1979 was propaganda film for the Khymer Rouge. By inserting his clay figures into the images, Panh calls the historical accuracy of the images into question, while giving the film a slightly playful feel, rather similar to the world being viewed through the eyes of a child.
Panh’s approach to filmmaking and telling the story of his experiences in Cambodia under Pol Pot is as moving as it is surprising. Panh uses the medium of film to it’s fullest effect to tell his story, while allowing the audience to take an emotional step back from the images of screen. Panh may have been searching for an image that haunted him, when he set out to make The Missing Picture, and in turn, he has created a film that will haunt and engage audiences.