Rithy Panh’s chilling documentary The Missing Picture opens with a pile of film canisters scattered around a dark room, spilling out with celluloid so decomposed, charred, and rotten that chunks of it crumble in the hand like dry earth. It looks like a cinephile’s nightmare, but it’s much worse than that: This is evidence of a crime, footage of what Cambodia looked like (or sometimes what leaders propagandistically asserted it looked like) after Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge transformed and terrorized the country in the wake of the Kampuchean Revolution. At age 13, Panh and his family, along with millions of others, were expelled from Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge seized the capital in 1975, and he’s spent a career documenting the genocide that followed in films like 2003’s brilliant S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine. With those canisters rotted out, he’s been compelled to supply new footage, letting his memories fill in gaps in the world’s memory.
As the title implies, the absence of photographic evidence—or limitation of it, anyway—requires Panh to get creative in documenting what happened to him, his family, and his country. A decade before The Act Of Killing startled audiences with reenactments of genocidal executions in Indonesia, Panh’s S-21 enlisted former inmates and guards at the infamous prison where many were tortured and killed, and had them perform for the camera; what he found were reformed men slipping back into their old roles, as if in a trance. The Missing Picture is every bit as conceptually bold as S-21 in finding a way to illustrate Panh’s memories without the luxury of having much actual footage from the time to do it. Using hand-carved and painted wood figurines, Panh and his crew create scenes in detailed tableaux; the figurines themselves don’t move, but the camera does, and combined with Panh’s narration (read by Randal Douc), the past comes vividly to life.
The Missing Picture isn’t a straightforward piece of storytelling, but more of a meditation on what happened, with personal anecdotes, historical events, and philosophical musings all coming together loosely—at times approaching free association. It requires active engagement from viewers, but whenever the narration threatens to drift off into the ether, the figurines and models ultimately keep it on terra firma. Panh recalls the time before the revolution, when his large, well-to-do family would get together over immense feasts, and he recalls the time after their expulsion from Phnom Penh, when they faced malnutrition and forced labor, and he watched many of them die. (He escaped to Thailand in 1979.) Pol Pot’s desire to create an agrarian society, where all were on equal footing, manifested itself in a devastating social experiment—enforced by propaganda and brutality, yielding rice and mass death.
Panh isn’t interested in a Rankin-Bass history; there’s no stop-motion here, and he’ll occasionally cut to shots of the figurines themselves being carved and painted, as if to emphasize how swiftly human beings can be broken down and transformed into automatons in black-dyed clothes. He also inserts real archival footage to devastating effect, cutting from the wood-cut renderings of labor camps to actual shots of people hauling dirt on carrying poles, scurrying around vast, barren landscapes in ant-like formation. On top of that, Panh includes bits from propaganda films and shots of Pol Pot himself in official meetings and public appearances, adding still more layers to the film. The “missing picture” of The Missing Picture cannot be found, but like Shoah director Claude Lanzmann, Panh is determined to restore as many of its torn pieces as he can, one documentary at a time. And yet this film confirms that Panh approaches the past not as a historian, but as an artist, and an exceptionally vital one at that.