The figures are small, delicate, easily shattered. Their faces are simple lines and dots, but there’s a sadness, a weight to their rough expressions.
“A man is made,” artist and filmmaker Rithy Panh says in “The Missing Picture.” “It doesn’t take much. Only the will.”
Panh’s entire family, indeed his entire country was unmade in the 1970s, as the brutal dictator Pol Pot turned a relatively cosmopolitan country of Cambodia into a totalitarian nightmare. Cities were emptied, citizens became slave laborers, and thousands were tortured and killed at the hands of the vicious Khmer Rouge.
It was an act of utter destruction, a people not just killed but their entire culture erased. Panh’s poignant and innovative documentary is an act of creation, remaking the forgotten Cambodia, one clay figure at a time. “The Missing Picture” was an acclaimed film that was included in a recent New York Times story on a new wave of innovative documentaries that included “Stories We Tell” and “The Act of Killing.” Nominated for an Oscar this year (but for Best Foreign Film, not Best Documentary) it did not play theatrically in Madison, but is now out this week on DVD and streaming services.
We never see Panh, only hear his voice and see his hands as he makes dioramas of memory to tell his story. His story, of a family forced into labor camps, driven to starvation and death, is intertwined with that the nation, and Pol Pot’s mass delusion that he could force Cambodia into an agrarian paradise at the point of a gun. “What begins in purity ends in hate,” Panh says in his vivid and poetic narration; the oppressor is furious at the oppressed for failing to will the delusion into existence, and gets even more brutal.
The film expertly weaves the still dioramas with historical footage, both of the joyful, bustling Phnom Penh of Panh’s childhood and the grim propaganda films of the Khmer Rouge regime. It’s not even good propaganda, the acting hilariously bad in “dramas” where the brave Cambodians vanquish invading American forces, the footage of the so called “worker’s paradise” unbearably sad. When you’ve terrified the populace into silence, there’s no need to convince them.
At times, all the misery somehow coalesces into a moment of beauty. At one point, Panh is talking about his older brother, a grinning teenager who played in a rock band in the days before Pol Pot, a victim soon after. As a Khmer-language version of Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour” plays, we see a clay figure of Panh’s brother soaring over the fields of miserable laborers, grinning, until he finally ascends to the moon.
Decades later, it’s the only way Panh could save his brother, through a piece of art. “The Missing Picture” is an intimate, painful and courageous act of reclaiming memory through art, of rebuilding, even in miniature, what evil had wiped out of existence.