Detail from the poster of "The Missing Picture."
Detail from the poster of "The Missing Picture."

Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh has devoted his life and career to the documentation and investigation of the Khmer Rouge -- not just the mass killings themselves but also the ideological fervor that made them possible, the passivity of other nations, and the aftermath of the regime’s collapse. Whether confronting one of Pol Pot’s own architects of terror, uncovering the individual stories of murdered Cambodians, or travelling with a family of refugees now working for pennies a day as laborers, Panh has always been guided by a commitment to the humanity and individual personalities of his subjects – the very individuality that Pol Pot and his henchmen tried so desperately to erase. 

Rithy Panh
Rithy Panh

All of Panh’s films are personal, but "The Missing Picture," which was nominated for the Best Foreign-Language Oscar and arrives in theaters for a limited release March 19, is also autobiographical.  Working with both archival footage and scenes shot with clay models, the 46-year-old director shares his memories of an idyllic childhood in Pnom Penh, the shock of his family’s forced move to the countryside when he was just 13 years old, and the four years he spent as a laborer in Pol Pot’s infamous “rehabilitation camps.”  Panh spoke with us from his offices in Pnom Penh about the making of the film, the solutions he found, and the pieces of his past that are forever missing.

Sheerly Avni: How did you arrive at the idea of using clay to tell your story?

Rithy Panh: It started out as a very personal attempt to give shape to my own memories. We were all sent away from my house in 1975. And when I went back to look for my house, it of course no longer existed. Today, it’s a karaoke parlor. Really just for my just for my own benefit, and I asked a guy from my crew to make a rough model for me. I had no idea he was a sculptor.  I just asked him to make me a simple rough model out of wood, but he immediately said no no, he wanted to use clay.

And you know,  it worked out well, because clay is also earth.  You make it with water, you dry it with the sun – not too little, not too much -- you work with your hands, and then little by little, you see something form. I guess this is how cinema works, you follow one idea to another, getting closer and closer to finding the story you want to tell.

And also, these aren’t just figurines, they are something else, they have a soul.

How so?

Yes, if you see a sculpture of Buddha in museum in New York, you might think of it as a beautiful object, or a relic – of the 12th century, the 13th century, whatever, your interest. But for us, these statues have souls. We don’t just pray to statues, we talk to them, we cry to them.

Was it challenging to work in such a different medium, this form of 3D static animation?

Oh yes, especially at first.  As a sculptor, he is very talented, but he’s also young, he wasn’t born yet during that period. So I would sit next to him while he carved, describing what I could remember -- what people wore, what they were doing, how they lost weight… It was very important that their faces be expressive, and emotional. I wanted people to see their humanity.