Cannes Review: 'The Missing Image'

Rithy Panh has a personal story to tell. The Cambodian filmmaker has made a number of documentaries and narrative features that touch upon the horrors visited upon his native country during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. His best known work, 2003's “S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine,” shone a light on the horrible conditions of Cambodian prisons under Pol Pot, and reunited survivors and interrogators for reenactments and a kind of reconciliation. Panh's lack of surviving family members, or of any true film footage from the reeducation camps of his childhood, have prevented him from making a documentary of his own story thus far. This absence of an additional primary source is, in a strange way, what makes “The Missing Picture (L'Image Manquante)” more than just a survivor's story. The result is a gripping, fascinating and visually arresting memoir well deserving of its Un Certain Regard prize at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.

“The Missing Picture” opens with the Khmer Rouge taking power in 1975. This hardline agrarian-based communist group saw themselves and their rural counterparts as the only true and good citizens of Cambodia – descendents of the “Old People.” The “New People” were intellectuals, professionals, anyone who lived in cities. Libraries were turned into pig farms, because only pigs read books. Young Rithy Panh and his family were removed from Cambodia's capitol Phnom Penh and placed in a forced labor/mind control camp no less terrifying or shocking than any dark science fiction tale.

Forced to farm, build roads, dig ditches by day, condemned to hear speeches via loudspeaker at night and encouraged to speak only in Party-approved slogans, Panh's family slowly reduces its numbers due to harsh conditions and poor health. “Hunger is a weapon,” Panh remarks, explaining how reduced rations would immediately stamp out any thought of rebellion.

The only film footage that the Khmer Rouge ever shot, however, was propaganda. To look at it, you'd think the former bourgeois class were singing government-penned work songs and smiling as they created new irrigation systems. The truth is they were dropping like flies. Panh's creative workaround to show-not-tell the truth is to create clay dioramas of scenes from his memory. “The Missing Image” isn't animation, as such, but employs a mixed-media of period film clips, staged tableaux and behind-the-scenes tinkering of the clay figures by the filmmaker himself.

From a formalist point of view it all clicks together and is absolutely stunning, particularly with Panh's rather poetic voiceover. He is not a finger-pointer, but an observer. Raised in the Buddhist tradition, Panh makes an effort to see the horrors from the point of view of an average Khmer Rouge grunt – an uneducated person long put-upon by the upper class with a life shattered by years of American bombing and regional tumult.

This level of sympathy aside, it is hard not to think of the Khmer Rouge as some of history's greatest monsters as it cheers along a brainwashed kid condemning his mother to death as an “individualist” for stashing stolen mangoes for him to eat.

The use of clay figures is easier to take than film images of starving children and grieving families, but the innocence of the figures take on their own unique sadness. “The Missing Image” concludes by saying that no one living should ever witness such things, but “if you do see, you must tell.”

SCORE: 8.0 / 10