The Missing Picture (L’image manquante)

France/Cambodia (2013) Dir. Rithy Panh

“Everything the State says is a lie, and everything it has it has stolen.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

When looking at the practices and machinations of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge the above quote seem rather apposite, as it could for all communist run states. That is not to trivialise the atrocities meted out by Pot against the people of the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, as recalled in this chillingly subdued but hard hitting documentary from a survivor of these horrors, Rithy Panh.

For The Missing Picture Panh has chosen to employ a rather different approach in telling his story, using lovingly carved clay figures and set among immaculately detailed mini sets. This doesn’t lessen the impact of the memoirs being shared, interspersed as they are with genuine filmed footage from the period, some of which has been twisted into propaganda.

The use of the clay models is a stroke of genius – the silent tableaux made up of inexpressive faces set in a number of grim situations accompanied by a soft spoken narration (in English or French) is eminently sufficient in capturing the mood and bleakness of the moment. There is no need for the models to act anything out as the narration says it all, buttressed by little touches like real water for the mud holes to complete the illusion.  

Occasionally Panh veers into tiny flights of fantasy, usually to depict death or a fond memory, but he rarely strays from the horrific reality of what he lived through and amazingly survived. Nothing is explicitly graphic – aside from brief shots of animals being experimented on – but it doesn’t need to be as the descriptions and recollections of Panh’s memories are enough to shock the viewer to the core.

There is no need to go into detail of the already well documented reign of terror that was the Khmer Rouge’s devastation of Phnom Penh; what makes this required viewing is that this is based on personal experience and not tainted by uncertainties over facts and a need for dramatisation. The scripted narration has a poetic flair to it, presumably to not overwhelm us with the tragedy of the tale and maybe as a therapeutic measure by Panh himself – but its authenticity and emotion is never questioned.

Panh was just a child when the Khmer Rouge expelled him, his family and neighbours from the capital and into labour camps under the pretence of creating a new self-reliant agricultural system that eschews western ideology such as capitalism, supposedly “re-educating” them in the process. He grew up watching everyone he knew and loved and later got know be worked into the ground or worse still, executed for the slightest act of rebellion, or free will to you and me.

Quite a burden for a child to live with and grow up seeing, yet even at that early age he wasn’t convinced that this was the ideal that Pol Pot and co were promoting to the rest of the world. Panh eventually escaped in 1979, first to Thailand then France where he remains today, yet with all of these memories and emotions that must drive him, there is not an ounce of bitterness in his words – just wonder, dismay, and sorrow, underpinned by a natural curiosity as quite often, much of what is discussed here just seems too absurd to be true.

Of course that is referring to how Pol Pot managed to convince everyone that his plan was for the better and despite full knowledge of the abhorrent treatment of the people, he could still tell such boldface lies to the media both nationally and internationally. As the old saying goes “it would be funny if it wasn’t true”.

As far as the objective of this film goes, Panh doesn’t appear to be fishing for sympathy or the kudos for exposing the first hand truth of this dark period of history. His eagerness to share is obvious and maybe it was cathartic for Panh to do so, but in turn he is also protective of the audience of many instances, leaving the eerie inertia of the clay diorama to tease our imaginations and leave the rest to us to join the dots.

Surprisingly, it’s not all doom and gloom as Panh has some fond memories of his days before the Khmer Rouge arrived, recalling the sights, sounds and smells of the local market which had since been destroyed, resembling a post apocalyptic landscape while the cinema he used to frequent was burned down. While these moments provide some much needed levity and colour among this bleak presentation, they serve as a sad reminder of the devastation that hit Cambodia.  

If the scenes with clay models keep everything implied, the similar implementation of the genuine footage, which again shows nothing of any real graphic nature, also seems harmless on the surface, but as alluded to earlier, it is the sheer duplicity and megalomaniac arrogance of Pol Pot that provides the horror. We see him smiling and hobnobbing with communist leaders from China, gleefully explaining how effective and profitable their system is, all the while knowing the truth behind that deceitful smile.

While it may have a curiously light presentation style, this is not an easy film to watch, the many stories and revelations shared here each come with their own unsettling edge be it through heartbreak, tragedy or the sheer incredulity of the hardships of the people or the arrogance of the Khmer Rouge. One certainly feels a greater appreciation for the liberties and comforts we have on this side of the world after viewing this film.

It’s important to remember that The Missing Picture may not have been made if Rithy Panh hadn’t made his escape from Cambodia. To that end we owe it to Panh to watch this film, as sobering and distressing as it may be, in both gratitude and celebration of his extraordinary life story.