The Missing Picture by Rithy Panh

Rithy Panh has made many films about his native Cambodia, but none as personal as The Missing Picture, awarded the Grand Prix (Un Certain Regard) at the 2013 Cannes International Film Festival. Now almost age 50, Panh states in the film's opening that he often finds himself revisiting memories of his childhood, that he seeks his childhood like a missing picture.

But because all of his family's photos and keepsakes were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge after it evacuated Phnom Penh in 1975, Panh has reconstructed his childhood from clay, creating intricate sets and colourful figurines of himself and each of his family members in order to tell his story. Images of the clay figurines are combined with and superimposed on footage from the regime's meticulously kept archives. The figurines take the edge off the many atrocities detailed in The Missing Picture, adding a warm childlike touch to an otherwise dark and chilling story.

As we see in the film, the director's childhood was happy and peaceful before the bombs began to fall in Cambodia. After the evacuation in 1975, Panh and his family were transported in a cattle car to a labour camp, where they were forced into re-education. As part of the Year Zero policy of the Khmer Rouge, families were separated and assigned numbers in lieu of names. Their clothes were dyed black, and their possessions destroyed, all in an attempt to erase their identities. Panh miraculously survives years of hardship and later seeks refuge in Thailand.

The Missing Picture is an extremely moving film. Although the atrocities of Pol Pot's killing fields are now well documented, this film's significant force comes from the fact that it is a first-person account of life in a Khmer Rouge labour camp and that no detail is spared. The regime's grainy black and white footage will also remind many people of US war coverage seen on the nightly news in the late 1960s and early 70s. TV images of US soldiers and terrified children in Indochina are perhaps some of the most powerful images of my own childhood. The Missing Picture reminded me of all the questions I had about war and bombs but that no adult could ever answer. 

The Missing Picture is poignant and more than deserving of its accolades. Rithy Panh has not only reconstructed the missing picture of his childhood, but he has also created an enduring record of what transpired in Cambodia where 2.5 million people lost their lives.

The Missing Picture is playing tonight at Cinéma du Parc 1 as part of the Rencontre internationale du documentaire de Montréal (RIDM).

Other related posts:
Dogs at the Perimeter by Madeleine Thien
Detropia by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady
Finding Dawn by Christine Welch
The Fruit Hunters by Yung Chang
Review of the Juliet Stories by Carrie Snyder
The Day of the Crows directed by Jean-Christophe Dessaint
M60: Faux Pas


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