Review by Jakub Wencel
The most surprising aspect of Cannes-awarded documentary The Missing Picture is not what it first seems. Director Rithy Panh—his family’s only surviving member during the Cambodian genocide—tells his shocking story in a form which, in other circumstances, could be considered inappropriate for a subject matter as sombre as this. The film is a mix of live-action archival footage (or at least what was left of it) – recovered mostly from the Khmer Rouge’s original sources – and stop-motion animation, shot on miniature sets built just for this purpose and with the use of handmade, brightly coloured clay figures. Those two completely different languages of visual narrative are complementary to each other, creating a unique way of showing what – at least with more conventional solutions – could not have been shown.
Panh uses film material shot with clay figures to fill the gaps left by the murderous regime’s propaganda films – which, naturally, did not show horrifying pictures of hard labour, starvation and genocidal killings (various reports state that even 2 million of Cambodians, almost a quarter of the country’s population, were murdered or died from a starvation or sickness at the hands of the Khmer Rouge). Animation – a form of visual narrative, which is generally absent or marginalized in modern documentary filmmaking – becomes here its strongest ally. It crosses political and material boundaries, letting Panh’s (and, indirectly, other survivors’) testimony come to life in a visual form – it is a goal that could not have been achieved in any other way, since all what is left from Khmer Rogue’s actions is people who survived and their stories. Film – with The Missing Picture – then comes with a surprising support for words and language; while words start to empower film, initiating creative process leading to forming new ways of telling stories which may have proved to be difficult to portray on screen in a different scenario.
The Missing Picture is then as much as about Panh’s terrifying youth as about’documentary filmmaking’ as a form of expression in general. A few years back Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir created a similar confusion, proving that even a fully animated film could be a documentary feature in a full sense of this term. The Missing Picture goes even a step further – it directly shows that this capacity can be use in situations when documentary filmmaking encounters real-life boundaries. In other words – how to make visible what is no longer visible? Rithy Panh definitely has an answer for that and by making lost pictures visible – just like in Jacques Rancière’s writings – he can make them political again.