Documentary Film Reviews – Vol 89, No 1

THE MISSING PICTURE = L’IMAGE MANQUANTE. Film written and directed by Rithy Panh; produced by Catherine Dussart; commentary written by Christophe Bataille; narrator, Jean-Baptiste Phou; original music, Marc Marder; cinematography, Prum Mésar; editing, Rithy Panh and Marie-Christine Rougerie. Boulogne, FR: Catherine Dussart Productions (CDP); Montreal: FunFilm [distributor], 2013. 1 DVD (92 min.) Personal Use: C$35.31. In English and French, with English subtitles. Url: Url:

With his sixteenth documentary, The Missing Picture, Rithy Panh continues to explore the traumas of Cambodian society, particularly the genocide conducted by the Khmer Rouge against their fellow citizens in the 1970s. This time, however, the moving and effective documentary takes a different approach from Panh’s previous work, such as S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2003) and Duch, Master of the Forges of Hell (2012). It is his most autobiographical work to date, in which he uses multiple media to tell the story, including clay miniatures. Panh was a teenager when the Khmer Rouge killed his parents and siblings, and he was sent to a labour camp where he suffered from malnutrition and violence. “I was robbed of my childhood,” he says in the film, which he wrote and directed when he was almost 50. The visual novelty of the documentary resides in the first-person narration, which is given with the help of little clay figurines. Miniatures tell the story of hunger, fear, torture, death, dream and hope. They are set in the jungle, in rice fields, in private houses or in schools. This narrative device is brilliant, because it conjures up so many aspects of Panh’s youth. Clay figurines, like lead soldiers, are childhood toys, a childhood that Panh is seeking, “unless my childhood is seeking me.” As such, they refer to a time of innocence, play, and nonchalant distraction. Clay is basic, natural, fragile and akin to the mud in the rice fields—a reminder of feet stuck in the swamps, dirt covering the body, and endless forced labour against a myth of order, cleanliness, and purity. But clay also allows for reconstruction, commemoration, and the creation of the “missing picture”: those years of suffering, disappearance, and murder. The figurines are expressive: their faces are sad, happy, filled with tears, or marked by pain. They rise against Pol Pot’s regime to dehumanize them, turn them into robots with no identity. Some figurines have emaciated bodies, bellies bulging from malnutrition, scars from beatings, or bleeding limbs. Some work, stooped over their shovels, while others rock their crying babies or assist dying relatives. The guard’s dog is better fed than the imprisoned children; even in clay, shackles and other torture tools are visible and in use. These reconstructed snapshots are the missing scenes from the official Khmer Rouge footage that is interwoven in the documentary: happy “revolutionaries,” happy farmers, and happy children, singing communist hymns and embracing collective slogans. There is no individuality, self-expression, or even emotion in the black-and-white archives of Pol Pot’s regime. There is no single voice or first-person account in the audio files that were recorded in the 1970s. “Color has vanished, like laughter, song, dance.”

While most miniature scenes and archival footage address the “missing years,” a few scenes with clay figurines reminisce the carefree period before the Khmer Rouge or express dreams and hopes after hell. There, the little characters wear colourful clothes, they are healthy, they smile, and they dance to the typical sound of 1960s Cambodian rock, another victim of the sanguinary regime. This is not just clay, or an inanimate construct, little pawns that Angka’s monstrous and invisible hand can easily smash; following Buddhist beliefs of reincarnation, life can be breathed into these figurines, and the souls of the dead will incorporate new shells and live through new life cycles.

The modeling of clay figurines is a tool that suits cinema perfectly; it offers a visual substitute to the missing pictures, and it energizes the cinematographic storytelling by alternating between archival footage and sound, contemporary images of the Cambodian countryside, and the miniatures. It also raises questions about the Khmer Rouge’s relationship to film (“A Khmer Rouge film is always a slogan”) and photography (“why did the Khmer Rouge photograph their victims, executions, and dead bodies?” Why so much evidence of their crimes?) But most importantly, molding, shaping and creating clay figurines is an act of creation against the attempt to destroy; it is a way to give a face and a name against the loss of identity and humanity; it is a successful endeavour to tell a story against the silencing of witnesses, of showing the picture that has been missing.

Brigitte Sion, Columbia University, New York, USA                                     

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