Joseph Stalin infamously said, “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” For many, it’s a sadly apt description of the atrocities that took place under the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror in the late 1970s in Cambodia, a dark chapter in recent human history that remains largely untold.
Director Rithy Panh attempts to remedy that with his deeply personal new film The Missing Picture, a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominee (it lost to Italy’s The Great Beauty) that opens in Atlanta on Friday, April 25, at the Midtown Art Cinema.
The challenge for Panh is that barely any photographic or video evidence of the Khmer Rouge’s brutality exists. Seize, burn and destroy were the mantras of the day, and as a result we’re left with little more than propaganda footage of the era. To fill in these “missing pictures,” Panh turns to unusual techniques to tell the story of the ordinary people like himself who were swept up in this nightmare.
Rather than relying on typical documentary “talking head” interviews, Panh opts for clay figures and miniature sets. Yep, you heard correctly. Teaming with Sarith Mang, Panh created sculpted tiny clay replicas of his family, as well as his fellow refugees and the Khmer Rouge, and then filmed them.
These figures and the film’s powerful narration, voiced in the French-language subtitled version by Randal Douc, help transport viewers back to 1975. Panh was an 11-year-old living in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. His parents were teachers, and he lived a happy middle-class existence filled with books, music and fun family time.
That picturesque childhood changed abruptly when the Khmer Rouge swept into the city, rounded up the citizens, and forced them to the countryside to work in brutal labor camps. Re-education was the rule, but slogans, intimidation and dehumanization were the teaching instruments of choice.
Despite Panh’s good intentions, The Missing Picture’s first 20 minutes is a bit of a slog, with the figurines and dioramas making connection to the subject matter challenging. But the power of Panh’s first-person account gradually accumulates, and when he describes the death of a family member, it packs a wallop.
As the film progresses, Panh’s artistic daring also pays increasing dividends, as he mixes mediums to startling effect. In one virtuoso sequence, he uses poignant narration, hauntingly gaunt figurines, a soaring background, haunting music and a rare still photo to relate a tragedy involving three young children. The scene hits hard.
But while the subject matter in The Missing Picture is somber, Panh remains determined not to let the horrors define him. Describing his memories of his family, Panh writes, “These pictures are not missing. They are inside me.”
Credit Panh for figuring out a cinematic way to fill in the historical gaps the Khmer Rouge left in its wake. With his inventive filmmaking, he’s moved this horrific story from an impersonal statistic to a human tragedy – but also made it one of triumph.
"The Missing Picture" opens in Atlanta on April 25 at the Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.
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