Foreign Oscar Entry Review: The Missing Picture (L'Image Manquante)

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by Carlos Aguilar
March 20, 2014 7:00 PM
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Rithy Panh's 'The Missing Picture'

The Missing Picture, Cambodia's Submission for the Academy Award Nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. U.S. : Strand Releasing. International Sales Agent: Films Distribution


History and memory have two strikingly distinct approaches to collecting information - even when related to the same event. The former is pragmatic, factual, and unconcerned with anything that cannot be sustained by evidence whether it is documents or, more prominently, images. The latter is emotion-based, sensory and individualized. Although it can sometimes be  correlated with the historical account, it is often only pertinent to a personal experience or a collective one unrecorded on textbooks, only tangible for those who lived through it. How can one fill that void? How can these untold stories form part of the conversation when debating a defining moment in history? If only the villains had a chance to capture their version of the story, how can the mute voices of the victims be heard? This is the artistic mission of Rithy Panh’s courageous, unprecedented, and unimaginably personal documentary The Missing Picture.

Using an incredibly original style the film chronicles the horrific regime of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia from April 17th 1975 to 1979, in which the population was stripped of any individual property or personal freedom. Essentially enslaved, they were forced to work for the communal well-being under the militarized government's interpretation of the Marxist ideology. The promise of perfect equality was the banner of the tyrannical communist party, which targeted those suspected of being capitalist, intellectuals, or holding subversive views. Lead by “Brother #1” Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge was responsible for a despicable genocide of millions of Cambodian citizens carried out via mass murders, widespread famine and the brutally precarious conditions in which people lived.

Narrated by Cambodian actor Randal Douc, this is an autobiographical tale told by means of handcrafted clay figurines and elaborate sets that are not animated, but instead work as tridimensional paintings which metaphorically stand in for the missing images that were never preserved on film. Despite the fact that Panh’s story is unarguably marked by the political implications of what occurred, his film is one deeply inspired by the resilience of the human spirit. It aims to reconstruct the experiences of those who were forgotten by the subsequent official retelling of the events. Unavoidably it also delves into the heart-wrenching details of the ruthless absolutist rulers. Furthermore, it is a remarkably visual collage like nothing seen before. By merging archive footage with the childishly artful set pieces, the filmmaker creates an exceptionally fascinating ode to memory as the purest and most truthful recording device.

“There is no truth, there is only cinema. The revolution is cinema” writes Panh referring to the fabrication of propaganda and the artificiality which, just like in film, the Khmer Rouge used to justify their exploitative operation in the name of prosperity. His caricatured, not particularly precise recreations of people, including himself, allow him some needed detachment given that this is such an affecting and intimate subject. Nonetheless, perhaps his artistic decision was based upon a yearning to reclaim a childhood innocence lost in the turbulent years he spend working the rice fields, digging graves for the deceased, and collecting the strength not to fall into hopelessness. As he revisits those tormenting memories in the shape of curiously molded static figures, he is able to reconnect with that perspective and to relive the emotions of a young individual who lost it all, including his family. It is a form of tribute to those who can’t scream anymore.

Incomparable to the work of any other documentary filmmaker, Rithy Panh's films carry a mournful sentiment, which he employs as a resource to keep constructing sincere impressions of what happened when the cameras weren’t rolling. As an artist he seeks to produce the pictures that never existed but that are imperatively necessary. As survivor he continually attempts to find closure, but attaining it would mean surrender, so he bravely continues to expose his vision through his stunning works. The firsthand knowledge transformed into visceral and alluring words, which scores the astounding labor of love visible in the production design makes of The Missing Picture an engrossing cinematic poem to his people and a testament to the power of memory as resistance against imminent despair.

Read more about all the 76 Best Foreign Language Film Submission for the 2014 Academy Awards



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