86th Annual Academy Awards, Academy Award Nominee, archival footage, autobiographical, autobiography, Best Foreign Film nominee, Cambodia, cinema, clay figures, documentary, film reviews, films, Jean Baptiste-Phou, Khmer Rouge, massacres, Movies, Pol Pot, Rithy Panh, The MIssing Picture, writer-director
The human capacity to bounce back from tragedy is, perhaps, one of our most necessary traits: while we may be initially flattened by disasters, wars, crime, disease and violent death, something about the human animal compels it to stick its chin out, put one foot before the other and continue marching forward into the face of adversity. Without this natural resilience, after all, it’s unlikely that any of us would have made it past the caveman stage, let alone the 20th century. You may push a human down but you can’t keep a human down, unless that’s where they choose to be: we’ll always find a way to come back stronger than before.
When the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia in 1975, it set the stage for one of the worst, most flagrant displays of evil in the entire history of the human animal. Over two million people became refugees, over night, and famine, death, disease and torment became rampant in the Southeast Asian country thanks to leader Pol Pot’s iron-fisted regime. At the time of the take-over, Rithy Panh was a typical 13-year-old: happy-go-lucky, obsessed with movies and close to his family. During the Khmer Rouge’s four-year reign of terror, however, Panh would lose everything and go from a typical teenager to a beaten-down survivor scrabbling together his existence from whatever he could get his hands on. Over thirty years later, Panh’s remarkable tale of struggle and survival forms the basis of the immensely powerful documentary The Missing Picture (2013), a film which gives a personal voice to the millions of disenfranchised Cambodian victims of the ’70s massacre.
While Panh’s story would make a fascinating documentary regardless of the format, The Missing Picture is unique in that it mixes archival footage of pre and post-revolution Cambodia with dioramas that Panh creates using hand-crafted clay representations of his family, friends, neighbors and countrymen. At times, Panh combines both types of footage together and the results are nothing short of dizzying: there’s a remarkable degree of reality to his clay figures and he’s able to imbue their features with a startling amount of expressiveness. It may seem odd to think that immobile clay figures can have overly expressive faces but Panh works some sort of magic and, at times, I was hard-pressed not to see the whole thing as a crude, if effective, form of stop-motion animation. Subject-matter notwithstanding, it’s a really cool, fascinating effect and Panh pulls it off flawlessly.
One of the most powerful aspects of The Missing Picture ends up being the way that narrator Jean Baptiste-Phou’s calm, mannered voice relates any manner of atrocities and hardships that befell Panh. There’s something soothing about Baptiste-Phou’s voice that creates a jarring contrast with much of what we see and hear: there’s an almost mournful quality to it that really suits the film’s elegiac mood, especially once we get into the heart-breaking section where Panh watches his father starve to death, little by little.
Lest The Missing Picture seem like an unrelenting tragedy, however, Panh manages to mix in some truly joyful pre-revolution scenes, scenes which focus on the vibrant music, night-life, dancing and filmmaking of the Cambodian people. There’s one amazing moment where Panh clay avatar goes “flying” over a crowd of dancing clay people and the effect is absolutely wonderful: for the briefest of moments, we get to feel some of the joy and love that filled Panh’s life before the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot summarily destroyed it all.
Ultimately, however, The Missing Picture’s message is one of hope, not horror or defeat. The very fact that Panh could survive such trials, at such a young age, and go on to such important work is testament to that aforementioned resilience of the human spirit. Rithy Panh’s journey from starving youth to Academy Award-nominated filmmaker (he ended up losing to The Great Beauty) is an inspirational one and The Missing Picture stands as a work of no small importance.
As Panh’s words state near the end, “This missing picture, I now hand over to you.” We’ve all been given this “missing picture,” and this film, so that we may never forget the innocent victims of the Cambodian massacre. We owe the survivors nothing less than to honor their memories and continue to shine a light into the darkest corners of our collective history. As the incomparable George Santayana once said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Rithy Panh has done his part to ensure that we’ll never forget: it’s now time for the rest of us to do our part.