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'The Missing Picture' Unearths the Cambodian Past

Short of trekking to Angkor Wat, Rithy Pahn's documentary The Missing Picture may be your best bet for seeing Cambodian funerary art. Both works honor the dead and keep them from meddling in the affairs of the living.

After probing the perpetrators of Cambodia's 1975-1979 genocide in such films as S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine and Duch, Master of the Forges of Hell, Panh now focuses on his family. But the truly novel thing about his latest chronicle is that he casts clay figurines in the roles of his kin and compatriots. You know that they fall victim to Pol Pot's atrocities. But can you name another Cambodian director who so reframes ancestor veneration (as seen in photo 1)?

Set in miniature dioramas, the dolls recompose scenes that are absent from the cinematic record. What little is retrievable from the vintage reels of dirt-clotted celluloid were made as propaganda by the Khmer Rouge. Few in the audience can be unmoved as the figurines watch real black-and-white footage that Panh has just salvaged from decreptitude.

A teenager in Phnom Penh during the late 70s, Panh drew on his memoir The Elimination to fill in the "missing picture" of the era. Scenes of mass hunger, forced labor and bloody executions play out the regime's Kampuchean experiment in Maoist-style Communism and other revolutionary ideologies (as seen in photo 2).

An especially poignant memory is Panh père's decision to oppose the dictatorship by foregoing its sub-subsistance rations of rice. If the father resisted with his body, the son resists with cultural expression of the very sort that the regime sought to snuff out (as seen in photo 3).

Yet not all is gloom and doom. To ward against compassion fatigue, Panh summons pre-revolutionary moments of bliss. You can't help but be charmed by the intimate scenes of him reading with other children and of admiring lavish Cambodian productions before movie theaters were torched. Such memories throw in harsh relief what would soon be gone under the Khmer Rouge, and give the titular "missing" yet another round of word play.

Lovingly hand-carved and painted by Sarith Mang, the inert figures seem at once sepulchral and animated. Like little buddhas, each avatar appears to be endowed with a spirit. But the élan only goes so far. Another look at their stylized expressions and you remember that these clay symbols are made from earth -- the same stuff the murdered souls they portray reverted to -- and that they don't really straddle the living and the dead. It's at once the film's strength and its weakness that these diminutive abstractions have limited power to overwhelm you. They keep the real ghosts at bay (as seen in photo 4).

Panh no doubt had an easier time "directing" them than he would have had with live actors. At least clay figurines don't have historical memory or feelings. But you can be forgiven for wondering how their distanced representation might have tempered any attempt on his part to find reconciliation, if indeed this is something he sought.

One thing's clear: The Missing Picture is not to be missed.     

The Missing Picture is a selection of the 51st New York Film Festival, and took the top prize in the 2013 Cannes Film Festival's Un Certain Regard section. The film has been chosen as the Cambodian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 86th Academy Awards

Photo credits:

Photo 1:  Villagers. Photo courtesy of Strand Releasing.

Photo 2:  Working. Photo courtesy of Strand Releasing.

Photo 3:  Sick father. Photo courtesy of Strand Releasing.

Photo 4:  Fishing. Photo courtesy of Strand Releasing.