The Missing Picture

Posted on: 22 January 2014 by Laurence Green

Khmer Rouge labour camp survivor Rithy Panh's powerful documentary The Missing Picture is a provocative, utterly valid portrait of a dark time in recent history, says Laurence Green.

scene from Rithy Panh's documentary The Missing Picture

The ghosts of a nightmarish past are rekindled in Rithy Panh's powerful documentary The Missing Picture (ICA Cinema and Curzon Soho) that won the top prize in the Un Certain Regards section of the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. This harrowing, deeply felt film provides and imaginative and unsettling journey back to the occupation of Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s.

Pol Pot's communist regime overran the Cambodian capital on 17 April 1975 when Pahn was just 11 years old. The regime was built on deprivation and fear. Citizens were rounded up and sent to agricultural labour camps, With the ostensible purpose of eliminating class divisions all personal effects were confiscated. Numbers replaced individuals, torture and executions were undertaken for the slightest infraction and hunger and fear dominated people's lives.

After spending his early years in a comfortable middle-class household in Phnom Penh, Panh suffered profound hunger and brutality in various Khmer Rouge labour camps in conditions that saw his entire family perish.

Looking back on these horrific events from middle age, Panh recreates his experiences with miniature lifelike clay figurines against stylised backdrops and archive footage, much of which was shot by the regime itself. Combined with the lyrical restraint of his narration, Panh manages to highlight the dichotomy between the barbarity of the regime and the innocence of its victims, represented by the figurines. The director describes the people in the archive footage as 'robots', and as being made out of dust and grains of sand. Panh makes clear through the photographs that the human being no longer has any value in the worked and by extension, identity no longer means anything.  

The film's actual premise lies in finding a picture, one that perhaps does not exist, to recall what happened during this period.

A searching rumination on the relationship between memory and trauma, this provocative work resists reconstruction to offer a more personal, yet utterly valid portrait of a dark time  in recent history.

The film also avoids voyeurism, instead exhibiting great humility in its assertion that despite the destruction imposed on it, humanity is able to survive and individuals can be more powerful than any totalitarian regime.

Certainly a film you won't forget in a hurry! 


The Missing Picture

ICA Cinema and Curzon Soho, London

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