Missing Picture: Powerful Look at Cambodia’s Dictatorship

The acclaimed filmmaker Rithy Panh has been a major chronicler of his native Cambodia’s nightmarish late-1970s dictatorship.   His latest work, The Missing Picture (L’Image manquante). a most harrowing vision of a living hell, world premiered at the 2013 Cannes Film Fest, in the Un Certain Regard series, and will be released by Strand in spring 2014.

The feature, based on Panh’s book The Elimination, adds another significant panel to his former documentaries S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2003) and Duch, Master of the Forges of Hell (2012).

Panh, who has suffered the deaths of his parents, sisters many relatives, and friends, has found an original mode to present the horrors of his country’s past.   Numerous clay figures, hand-carved and painted by Sarith Mang, stand in for the victims and perpetrators of the Khmer Rouge’s atrocities.

Some background is in order: From 1975 to 1979 under the leadership of Pol Pot, the regime inflicted cruelly harsh policies on the country, renaming it Kampuchea. Their ideology was largely inspired by Communist teachings, notably China’s Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward.’

The film’s first-person narration is by Randal Douc, with the text  credited to Christophe Bataille, who collaborated with Panh on The Elimination, the critically acclaimed work of 2012.

The film mixes various media to great cumulative effect. The abuses and horrors are illustrated by carved figures in elaborate dioramas and rough-edged visual effects, which make all of a more poignant impact when contrasted with vivid memories from Panh’s pre-revolutionary childhood in the capital Phnom Penh.

Panh also makes effective use of archive footage taken from the regime’s propaganda documents, dating back to the 1970s and 1980s.

Most Western viewers are familiar with this horrific situation from watching Roland Joffe’s Oscar-winning drama The Killing Fields of 1984.  But as Panh remarks, our conception of the Khmer Rouge are full of “missing pictures,” leading to a rather philosophical discussion on the problems inherent in deriving information and acquiring awareness from images mediated by Western news and entertainment agencies, which are necessarily biased.

As directed by a man who’s unforgiving and unforgetting, The Maissing Picture calls for a more direct, clear-eyed, and critical yet empathetic engagement with actual events.