Directed by Rithy Panh, The Missing Picture provides a memorable account of the Khmer Rouge regime, led by Pol Pot, Cambodia’s former leader. Panh is the narrator, combining his experiences with those of the people he knows and once knew. Archived information is also present. The opening scenes consists of waves crashing violently into the camera lens, not something the viewer would expect in a film about genocide. However, by the end of the documentary, we know the waves are significant. They are a metaphor. During the Khmer Rouge, waves of violence, torture, starvation, and murder swept through the country for four years until the forces were stopped. Nearly two million people died as a result of the Khmer Rouge.
After the waves pass, Panh is shown in the present, carving clay models. The first character is one he wishes he could be near, his father. So intricately are the figures painted and carved. Expressions are molded into their faces with two strategically placed black dots for eyes. Later in the film, these figures are featured in beautifully- rendered landscapes accompanied by heightening audio, making the scenes quite haunting. The models are present in scenes with archival footage as well. Their role in this film is to stand in for those that are no longer alive. In making art, he seeks to fill a void, to attempt creation of what will always be missing. Missing is the key word in this documentary, and it is posed many times. He asks us if those around the world knew what was going on, whether they missed the picture, whether he will ever be able to find the missing picture or something to show the full extent of what really happened.
Panh’s uncertainty is evident and his experiences haunt his existence. He tells us that his childhood returns in the middle of his life, calling to him and that he is only now able to speak. What he has endured is unfathomable to most people. His father starved himself to death as a testament to one’s free will in the oppressive regime. He also lost his sisters, his cousins, and his mother to the actions of Pol Pot. Stoicism on the viewer’s part is difficult to maintain when Panh tells of how he stole a fish for his mother to eat, only to find out she has died before he could give it to her. He also provides the account of a young girl he slept near. She was hungry she stole corn but was caught and forbidden to eat it. The girl died in the night as a result of extended starvation. In another scene, the figures bring to life the story of a nine year old boy who told on his mother. For what? Picking mangoes. His mother was dragged away into the forest, never to be seen again.
From a personal perspective, this film hits home. I was raised by a mother who had to endure the consequences of the regime and the effects are still prevalent in my mother’s life. In the faces of the young Cambodian woman, I look for a familiar face, thinking that she could have been one of those bodies who were worked to exhaustion. Her accounts are vivid, her voice flares in anger at the remembrance of what her, her family, and her people had to endure. As someone from another generation, who has never experienced this, it is not easy to put myself in her shoes. In fact, I will never see it from her eyes. All I can do is try to understand. I believe the Missing Picture offers an important perspective: the voice of the victim, the survivor, one who shares their story in the hopes of opening the eyes of those who will never quite understand.