The Missing Picture

April 7, 2014 at 1:33 pm | Posted in 2014 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ½

One can expect any documentary about the Cambodian genocide under the Khmer Rouge to be a grisly and exhausting affair. Pol Pot’s regime managed to kill almost a quarter of the country’s population (around 3 million people) in just 4 years.  It’s difficult to imagine any film about that time period being anything but a struggle to get through.  Especially, given how personal this story is.  Yet, Rithy Panh manages to tell the story of his survival, from ages 13 to 17, with a degree of poetry and beauty that was unexpected.  That is not to say this film isn’t difficult.  Panh lost his father, mother, two brothers and two sisters during the genocide.  His experience was a heart-wrenching one but his courage and determination to recapture and own his past is deeply touching.  While I might have expected this film to remind me of last year’s “The Act of Killing” about a similar genocide in Indonesia, it actually has far more in common with the 2012 documentary “Marwencol” about a man who deals with trauma by creating an imaginary town occupied by dolls and action figures.  Panh’s struggle for a sense of peace is made worse because there are no images (pictures, videos) of his experience.  So, to deal with this, he has created the entire story of his experience using hand carved clay figures and beautiful sets.  Through a lyrical voice-over (in French with subtitles), we are told his story while we watch the figures being made and placed in their various backgrounds.  These scenes are not gratuitously bloody or violent (though they could have been); that is not Panh’s purpose.  He is just trying to document his world, to give it form, make it more real and to own it.  His process of healing is what makes the film so touching.  In that sense, it is also more like “Marwencol.”  “The Act of Killing” left me with a sense of shock and wonder and with interesting, unanswerable questions.  “The Missing Picture” left me with awe at the tenacity of human beings to survive and heal.  It is sad and disturbing but also beautiful and touching.

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