The Missing Picture
Rithy Panh uses clay figures, archival footage, and his narration to recreate the atrocities Cambodia's Khmer Rouge committed between 1975 and 1979.
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★★★★ review by Dragonknight on Letterboxd
”There is no truth, there is only cinema.”
This is like a psychotherapy session. The Missing Picture is the prime example of an artistic creation in which the artist’s main intention is to achieve catharsis and mental peace. By telling us about his childhood memories of Khmer Rouge reign back in late 70s – which saw one of the most brutal genocides in the history of mankind when Khmer Rouge forces murdered, worked or starved to death more than 1.7 million Cambodians over a four year period - director Rithy Panh hopes to find a way out of the dark, bitter and horrifying maze of memories and in the end he manages to build an experience which is purifying and devastating in equal measures.
What makes this sorrowful and heartbreaking tale of grief and regret so impressive is Panh’s method of re-creating the extremely melancholic atmosphere of Cambodia between 1975 and 1979, by using clay figures to tell the story of millions of men, women and children who fell victim to the folly and madness of one individual he gives those terrifying and woeful memories a very unique look, every tiny figure is a symbol of the suffered individuals who were made to abandon their identities and their unique features that made them human beings, the film also keeps the action to the minimum and by doing so it gives us a chance to fill in the gaps whenever the director can’t or doesn't want to recall his memories.
And then there is the constant swinging between the glorious and colorful days of his early childhood when he, his family and all Cambodians were having fun and the gloomy days of Khmer Rouge reign when singing, speaking and even thinking was forbidden. The film’s ongoing comparison between life and death, joy and woe, happiness and fear, hope and despair enables it to create an immensely powerful and affective atmosphere which is impossible to forget. The passionate narration successfully brings Panh’s feelings to life and adds to the depth of the experience.
The Missing Picture is an essential watch both for its technical and structural innovations and its subject matter. It is a moving, at times devastating and in the end a very powerful piece of cinema and certainly one of the best films of the year. Don't miss it.
★★★★ review by Adam Cook on Letterboxd
Rithy Panh’s stunning documentary of childhood remembrance is a unique and captivating work of genuine power. Panh contrasts archival footage with diorama clay-figure reconstructions to explore the atrocities committed during the Khmer Rouge’s revolution in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979. The film’s title refers to the missing culture, lives and artifacts destroyed by the communist dictatorship in the name of social solidarity as Panh attempts to explore his very personal history.
Panh was just 13-years old when the Khmer Rouge took the capital city, Phnom Penh. Removed from their homes, families were stripped of their names, identities and belongings and thrown into Kampuchean labour camps and killed or worked to death for the progress of a new Cambodia. It’s a tragic story of recent history recreated in a series of crude clay tableaus that only add to the power of Panh’s message and his fading memories and recollections.
The static staging of the dioramas, that document life before Pol Pot and the hell of the camps, are surreal yet haunting. With the regime stripping the people of everything but their memories the clay figures take on far greater emotional significance as if Panh is using them as a means of role-play as he tries to come to terms and exorcise the horrors of his country’s recent history.
The personal narration contrasts and reinforces the images on screen. The sequence reliving his father’s resistance against the Khmer Rouge is one of many moments that possess a poignancy and devastating power. It is amazing how much can be conveyed with such simple rudimentary tools but Panh has created a singular work of mournful meditation that is quite unlike anything I have seen before.
Difficult, poignant and deeply moving, The Missing Picture, is a unique but essential experience.
★★★★½ review by Melissa Tamminga on Letterboxd
"How do you revolt when all you've got are black clothes and a spoon?"
How indeed, when everything is stripped from you, is there space for anything but survival - and in the surviving, what is left but grief, guilt, loss? But here, now, Rithy Panh stages his revolt, as the only means to continue living. Here, using crude clay, as if using the very stuff of his being and of the flesh of those he buried, Panh builds images of what he lost - and builds it on his own terms.
Where the Khmer Rouge had seized photos to destroy the threat of the personal and of the individual and created new films to promote political ideology and lying glory, Panh seizes images in return, taking such filmed ideology, and frames it, transforms it: adding his clay figures -much more powerful figures than the clapping, smiling Pol Pot - adding his narration - much more powerful than the screaming of slogans - and reclaims his past, his color - not black but pink, yellow, and red - his family, his story, himself. The crude clay speaks while the black and white film of the regime merely mumbles incoherently.
Still, it would be a mistake to pretend Panh is not a haunted man. There is no healing, not really, not fully, even in such powerful artistic revolt. "It's not a picture of loved ones I seek, I want to touch them. Their voice is missing," he says.
Even his own voice, in the boy he was, is lost to himself: "It's the boy; he seeks me out. He wants to speak to me, but words are hard to find."
The words, the memories, the images are hard to find, and even "Mourning is difficult. There is no end to the burial. . . . There is the blood drenched earth. Their flesh is mine, so we are together."
And so the film ends, with the burial of a clay figure - buried, being buried, being buried - and it is a figure, a picture, I cannot forget.
★★★★½ review by Alex Engquist on Letterboxd
had a great Twitter conversation with Ben Hynes (letterboxd.com/cautiousdisplay), who suggested that Rithy Panh's film is "contrapuntal" to Joshua Oppenheimer's THE ACT OF KILLING. I think that in a basic sense, both Panh and Oppenheimer are attempting to fill in the gap between history and memory - the crucial difference is that Panh rejects and even condemns cinema for its role in allowing the Khmer Rouge to seize and maintain control of his native Cambodia, while Oppenheimer is so taken by his morbid fascination with what the artifice of cinema does to the Indonesian war criminals and the recollections of their crimes in AoK that he can never quite move beyond it to question his own approach.
Panh's film is an interrogation of cinema itself as a means of remembering, and furthermore he suggests that memory in all its forms (cinematic and otherwise) proves only that one has survived long enough to carry the burden of remembering.
Throughout THE MISSING PICTURE, Panh offers these memories to the viewer in the form of crudely expressive clay diaromas and his own voiceover. There are three separate forms of artifice/distortion here, since Panh's voiceover is recorded in French by Jean-Baptiste Phou (a language he learned after escaping the Khmer Rouge) and subtitled in English. Then Panh adds yet another layer in the form of newsreel footage shot by the Khmer Rouge to sell the lie of their collectivized would-be utopia to both their own people and the world. Panh integrates these elements to distracting, disorienting effect in THE MISSING PICTURE, going so far as to edit his clay figurines into film footage of Phnom Penh - the end result is dissonance, not clarity, and certainly not any sort of objective truth. To watch THE MISSING PICTURE is to be swept away in a tide of memories and their subjective renderings - a literal image Panh returns to again and again.
Hynes suggested that "rather than presenting a single coherent position, the film enacts the processes by which image/identity are fragmented." It's that lack of a coherent position that makes THE MISSING PICTURE much more than simply a novel form of cinematic memoir. Rithy Panh has crafted an essay film - which is no less personal for being one - that questions the role of responsibility in history, memory, and cinema. Hynes, appropriately, answers these questions with another question: "Having done away with the notion of a sovereign history or stable image, how could any work be anything but a personal essay?"
For all their differences both THE MISSING PICTURE and THE ACT OF KILLING arrive at similar ends. Oppenheimer's exposing a denial/distortion of historical memory on a massive scale by further distorting it with cinematic artifice, until the surreal grotesque collapses in the sight of an old man retching and purging nothing. Yet Oppenheimer has a safe distance to which he can retreat from this dredging of the unresolved past, while Panh carries the burden of his memories always and cannot be rid of them. Those decaying film reels Panh lingers over are a reminder that the tools of memory - art, film - are as inevitably susceptible to decay as the body, the mind, the memory itself. What he offers us is (and must be) such a small, distant part of what he carries within.
★★★★ review by Mike D'Angelo on Letterboxd
Exactly the sort of grim memoir that I find oppressive when it's done conventionally; the layer of abstraction imposed by the clay figures makes all the difference. Wish Panh had been a bit more rigorous in his use of the conceit—I detected little rhyme or reason, apart from strict utility, in the way he jumps around between modes, or in e.g. the occasional superimposition of figurines onto archival footage (which is quite effective)—but overall it's an uncannily moving experience, enhanced by beautifully written and performed (in French, by an actor standing in for Panh) voiceover narration. A valuable companion piece to S21.
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