This is an Oscar-nominated documentary film with a twist – where the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia are illustrated through the medium of clay models. The Missing Picture (2013) is a special film, where director Rithy Panh creates his narrative through both clay models and archival footage to tell a very personal story; that of his and his family’s struggles during Pol Pot’s time in power.
When I think of clay modelling in films nowadays, I tend to think of films like The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001), where the clay models are used to create disturbingly wacky scenes that would otherwise have been impossible to create with human actors. It’s certainly not common in films nowadays, which makes the premise of this film a bit of a novelty. In The Missing Picture, the clay models are used to recreate the memories of Rithy Panh and his family, telling such a bleak story that at times it’s difficult to watch. The incongruence of the crudely hewn, childlike models being paired with stories about violence, hunger, and the loss of hope, is disturbing in and of itself, but also strangely beautiful. I was reminded of working with children using art therapy techniques – where a child illustrates their trauma and externalises it through painting, drawing, sand, or even clay. The combination of the clay figures with archival footage and propaganda film footage is also a strange feeling, as it combines the historical and the personal.
These images are at times difficult to watch, however, they are paired with narration by Jean-Baptiste Phou that is strangely soothing. Phou’s voice narrates Rithy Panh’s life story – being rounded up with his family at thirteen and sent to re-education camps, his experience of hard manual labour and starvation at the hands of the government. At the beginning it feels like Phou’s voice is monotonous and disconnected, but then over time it feels as if Panh’s story is being told from an almost zen state, where his experiences have been accepted.
Under the reign of the Khmer Rouge, normal people were not allowed to have pencils and paper to tell their story. The Party tried to silence and cover up the Cambodian Genocide, and very few images escaped about this dark time in the history of Cambodia. But voices like Rithy Panh’s are unable to be silenced, and after finishing watching films like this, what results is an overwhelming sense of respect and awe that people were able to survive experiences like this and still be able to tell their story. Truly a top notch documentary, even if it is extremely bleak and confronting.
Watch the trailer here.