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A friend of mine, who’s in his fifties, is getting an MFA in nonfiction writing. Many of the other students in his program are in their twenties, and most have no interest in writing any kind of nonfiction other than memoir. Everyone, it seems, has a story to tell, and more than that, a belief that the greater world is interested in that story, even when it’s being told by a person who has barely lived.
In that context, The Missing Picture, a disarmingly subtle documentary-memoir hybrid by Cambodian-born director Rithy Panh, comes off as a work of extreme humility. Panh does have a story to tell: In 1975, when he was 13 years old and living a normal life with his family in Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge, under the leadership of Pol Pot, invaded the city and drove its inhabitants into the countryside, decreeing that they leave everything, including family photographs and mementos, behind. There, they were forced to work as field laborers; the goal was to create a pure, agrarian-based Communist society. Anyone with too much education — any education — was considered untrustworthy. Eyeglasses, seen as a symbol of learning, were forbidden among the masses. Perceived enemies of the state were tortured and executed. Children were encouraged to inform against their parents. Workers of all ages were subject to inhumane conditions, and when famine struck, people died by the thousands.
Panh escaped to Thailand in 1979, eventually settling in Paris to make documentary films, but the rest of his family did not survive. With The Missing Picture, he tells the story of his childhood before and during the Khmer Rouge occupation, but here’s the clincher: Because so little documentary footage of the period exists, Panh tells his story mostly through the use of carved clay figures that represent himself, his family, and his fellow citizens.
Using dolls to tell the story of genocide may sound tragically misguided. I went into the film cold at Cannes last year, and once it began and I realized what I was in for, I dolefully began counting the number of people I’d have to climb over to reach the exit. But I stayed, and found myself captivated: The Missing Picture, which won the festival’s Un Certain Regard prize and was a nominee for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars, is unlike anything I’ve ever seen, a strange and beautiful work that comes off as both haunted and charmed. The horror of Panh’s boyhood past is real, but the poetry he makes from it is just as tangible.
In their startling innocence, the dioramas Panh has created — of riotous, colorful pre-1975 family get-togethers, of gaunt workers toiling in the fields, of soldiers executing blindfolded prisoners — resemble children’s playthings, though they also have a talismanic power. Because Panh has no photographic remembrances of his family, these displays serve as handcrafted home movies: They’re motionless, but not lifeless.
Early on, we see a close-up of hands at work carving a man in a neat white suit. From the voiceover narration, written by Panh and read by Randal Douc, we learn that this man is Panh’s father. “I want to hold him close,” Panh says, an admission that’s searing in its directness. The figures change along with the narrative: Their clothes are painted black to reflect the uniform dictated by the Khmer Rouge. Human anguish, measured first in months and then in years, shows in these figures’ faces and bodies as they’re whittled down to angular hollows. The figure of Panh becomes thin and pinched, too, though his shirt, instead of black, is spotted with vivid red polka dots. That shirt is a cry of defiance, a reminder of the inner self he refuses to relinquish. “To hang on,” he says, “you must hide within yourself a strength, a memory, an idea no one can take from you. For if a picture can be stolen, a thought can’t.”
The historical footage Panh weaves into his story is spare and carefully chosen, including bits from Khmer Rouge propaganda films, revealing in their very stiffness, and snippets of better days, like the clip showing Cambodian teenagers of the ’60s twisting and shouting to a cover of Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour” performed in their native tongue. The language may sound strange to English-speakers, but the music and the movement of the dancers tell us all we need to know about youth and freedom. In another sequence, a group of clay figures gaze, rapt, at a dancer in a golden costume, another relic of a happier time. She’s real, destined to live forever in a film clip; the figures, frozen in their joy, are just clay ghosts. Or are they? The Missing Picture is so immediate, so vital, it practically breathes. Not all memoirs need to exist. But the gentle urgency of Panh’s story is right there in the filmmaking. This is a story that had to be told. Even in its stillness, it moves.