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Poetry, Politics and Memory in "The Missing Picture"

by Caryn James
March 19, 2014 8:23 AM
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Missing Picture

The opening images -- rusted film canisters, unspooled movie reels spilling across the floor like some beautiful, serpentine ruin of a sculpture -- signals that The Missing Picture is like no other film you've seen. In this autobiographical documentary, Rithy Panh uses clay miniatures to reenact the imprisonment and death of his family under Pol Pot's regime in 1970's Cambodia, but that description makes it sound like one more hybrid documentary.

The hybrid, with fictional techniques shaping a non-fiction film, is a flourishing genre, but by its nature no two are anything alike. In the most famous recent example of the form, Joshua Oppenheimer's potent The Act of Killing, murderers reenact the Indonesian genocide of the 1960's as if they were old movies. Superficially, it's easy to lump the two together as political documentaries using fiction, but the harsh, eye-opening Act of Killing is worlds away from sad, lyrical Missing Picture. The Act of Killing is about criminals facing their past; The Missing Picture is at once a survivor's story, a political statement and an eloquent meditation on images and memory.

In voiceover, a narrator explains that no images exist as evidence of what his family endured. At 13, he was sent with his parents and siblings to a labor camp. His father stopped eating in rebellion and died; his sister and mother starved to death. The miniature figures -- we see some being carved and painted in close-up, as the remembrance and recreation takes shape before our eyes - restore the horrors that were never photographed.


But The Missing Picture is more layered and complex than any simple reenactment. The narration, written by Christophe Dataille and read in French by Randal Douc, is artfully done. "I seek my childhood like a lost picture. Or rather it seeks me," the narrator says. The film itself is Panh's reassembling of the past so that he can understand it, share it, and as he explicitly says, try to be relieved of its burden by his testimony.

The colorful miniatures are interspersed and at times layered over rough black and white news film from the period, the kind of film we've become accustomed to. Miniatures of starving people too weak to move, in rows of cots, makes us see the horrors with fresh vision. And the specificity of Panh's memories of the camp make the film even more personal than it is political. "From now on a saucepan is individualistic. It is forbidden to own one," the narrator says.

Panh never animates his miniatures, a choice that enhances their power. He creates still lifes, the perfect approach for displaying the images he has recreated. They are not the missing film or even photographs that might have been. Like The Missing Picture itself, they are small, exquisite works of art infused with living memory. 

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