Filmmaker Rithy Panh is known for his films centred around the 1970s Cambodian Genocide and the effects of this horrific period in history on his country. The Missing Picture sees Panh recreate the atrocities that took place under the regime of the Khmer Rouge in an innovative and noteworthy way.
Panh depicts his story partly through the use of archive footage and partly using clay figurines, which the audience sees him carefully craft in the opening moments. These clay sculptures are the people of Cambodia, colourfully dressed with smiles carved on their faces, content with the lives they have. Then, the archive footage presents the audience with the horrors that unfold. Trees are lit in flames, and people are seen grieving over dead bodies. Figurines appear dressed in black with rudimentary firearms. This is the Khmer Rouge, and they have seized control of the country. The city is deserted, with only personal belongings left behind. The expression upon the Cambodian figurines changes- they are now stripped of their clothes and forced to wear black, sent into labour camps just as Panh and his family were.
Panh’s clay-crafted production design is detailed. Despite their static lifelessness, the audience feels empathy for the figurines, and their faces are haunting when the camera focuses on them, their gasping expressions and hands clasped over their ears in a vain attempt to drown out the atrocities. The sets around them, made from raw materials, complement the clay creations, and the scenes are given added atmosphere through the use of sound recordings and music. The prominent and candid narration is heard throughout, with only the slightest of pauses to allow the audience time to digest what they are seeing. All these elements come together to help the audience become immersed in The Missing Picture.
The presentation of Panh’s memories through clay figurines works exceptionally well with propaganda archive footage. Presenting the two styles on their own could become repetitive and mundane, but together they elevate each other. The colour clay scenes contrast against the black-and-white footage, and both stir emotions to impart a harrowing impact on the audience. Occasionally the two elements are combined to great effect, as the vivid colour of the figurines stands out against a drab, black and white city.
In The Missing Picture, Panh confronts his darkest memories, constructing a film that presents them in an unforgettable way. Panh demonstrates here that documentaries can be more than a matter-of-fact depiction. He shows that this genre of film can be expressive, inventive, and poetic in examining the past, even when the historical period explored is horrifying.