“I wish to be rid of this picture of hunger and suffering,” says Jean-Baptiste Phou as he reads the words of director Rithy Panh, “so I show it to you.” With how much Panh decides to show us of his past in his new documentary, The Missing Picture, we get the sense that there is nothing missing for him; the missing picture is what we don’t know, whether it’s the history of late 1970s Cambodia and the brutally violent Khmer Rouge, or the details of the camps in which families like Panh’s were forced to work.
Instead of simply telling us about this past, or showing archival footage, Panh decides to use clay figurines and settings to tell his story. As a result, his subjectivity—which he goes through great pains to capture—is clear, and his perspective can be communicated through the choices he makes with this artistic style. In many ways, one is reminded of Persepolis, which uses a comic book format (as a result of the film’s comic book origins) to tell the story of Marjane Satrapi, who was a young woman during the Iranian revolution in the late 1970s. Both films take advantage of the media in which they work in order to capture reality—not the reality of a history book, but of personal experience.
The Missing Picture, though, is more in line with a traditional documentary, if only because it combines archival footage and clay to discuss both Panh’s personal experience and the nature of the camps in which the Khmer Rouge enforced constant human labor. The result of Panh’s artistic vision are what make this movie entirely distinct (despite the Persepolis similarities, or perhaps because of them), and his poetic reflections combined with the visuals that combine reality and figurines are almost other-worldly. It’s the David Lynch method in many ways: by capturing something unrealistic, reality comes through even clearer.
That reality is one of hardship, hopelessness, enslavement, and defeat. Panh and his family struggle to survive as they are starved, and Panh reflects on the murders of people who attempted to feed themselves through alternative means. He could not understand this as a boy. When his father refuses to eat any more of the Khmer Rouge’s regimented diet, Panh recalls being angry at his father. The fact that he was a child at this time, but can reflect on it as an adult, shows that the people living through this hell were probably either powerlessly frustrated or hopelessly confused.
That emotion, due to Panh’s direction, carries over to the viewer. Suddenly, you wish you could do something, or understand better how these circumstances came to be. You get frustrated, confused, and upset. Instead of just understanding, you can sympathize because Panh conveys his story not just literally, but also conceptually and emotionally. One might worry that the basic conceit of this movie is a gimmick, but the dedication Panh has for this story quells that fear immediately.
The Missing Picture is an incredibly tight film, largely because of Panh’s careful control over the story. But I think that its most lasting effect is how open he is about his intentions: he wants everyone to know this story, to share his memories, so that he can be better understood. He wants us to share his pain, so that maybe he can hurt less. That idea is ambitious, and the most impressive part of this film is that he pulls it off so seamlessly. In one of the many powerful uses of the tool that is documentary filmmaking, he takes what he feels and shows it to us, so that maybe we can avoid the mistakes of the past.