Clays of our lives – The Missing Picture review

The Missing Picture

By Jess Lomas
March 18, 2014

Documentaries chronicling war tend not to involve clay figurines and miniaturised recreations, yet, in The Missing Picture, director Rithy Panh’s memoir of his childhood under the thumb of the Khmer Rouge, archival footage and diorama-style visuals are impressively blended.

When the Khmer Rouge forcibly removes the population of Phnom Penh in 1975, 13-year-old Rithy Panh’s life is forever changed. He is moved, along with his family, to re-education centres promoting the new communist Cambodia. Over the next four years, twenty-five per cent of Cambodia’s population is reportedly wiped out; they’re either killed as enemies of the state or die of starvation or disease from poor conditions in the centres. Manual labour is enforced, personal possessions are surrendered, and Panh witnesses those around him perish in a nightmare he cannot wake from.

Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, this Cambodian-French collaboration was unfairly overshadowed by the crowd-favourite The Great Beauty. The Missing Picture is a haunting and sobering documentary that not only mesmerises with its narrative but also impresses with its collage of techniques that merge seamlessly to give us something truly unique on screen.

The Missing Picture

Panh’s story is written for the screen by Christophe Bataille and narrated by Randal Douc, whose dulcet tones combine with composer Marc Marder’s magnetic score to hypnotise. The poetic recitation has a numbing affect though one could not imagine this film conveyed any other way; its delivery is eloquent despite its brutal message.

The use of figurines is perhaps enforced to distance the audience from the horror of Panh’s reality, although at no time does he play up the atrocities of his experiences for drama or show, even admitting throughout that we do not need to see certain things. What surprises most about Panh’s figurine tactic is how quickly you move past the distraction and become invested in these mottled-faces, each beginning to blend into the next yet with some mark of individuality.

The “missing picture” of the film’s name is suggested to have several interpretations. Panh meditates on his own lost picture, that of his childhood, family and innocence, questions Pol Pot’s control of media and whether the picture of a nation dying escaped Cambodia’s borders, and finally prompts the audience to continually seek the missing picture in our world today. For its refreshing style and technique, and for its poignant message, The Missing Picture is an exciting documentary.


The Missing Picture arrives in Australian cinemas March 20, 2014.

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