Part memoir and part documentary, the Oscar-nominated “The Missing Picture” engages with the past, not by confronting it, but by backing away. In doing so, it presents a view of history that is as devastatingly personal as it is profound.
In 1975, when the Cambodian-born, French-educated filmmaker Rithy Panh was 13, he and his family were deported from their home in Phnom Penh to labor camps by the Communist Khmer Rouge, who had just taken over the country. “The Missing Picture” is based on his memories of the deprivation and death that followed. Combining archival footage with new scenes using crudely hand-carved, hand-painted clay figurines, Panh tells the story in a manner that feels simultaneously detached and uncomfortably intimate.
It’s frankly amazing how much poignancy he is able to wring out of simple models. Unlike traditional stop-motion animation, Panh’s figures don’t move. They’re set up in miniature tableaus — replete with tiny plants, animals, furniture, buildings and props — that his camera zooms in on or pans over. Each one is a little work of art.
Why use clay, instead of actors or some other style of animation? That’s because dirt is a powerful metaphor for the director. It not only holds the bodies of those who died under the Khmer Rouge — including Panh’s parents — but, in the central symbolism of the film, their spirits as well. Old black-and-white footage of skulls being excavated is paired with a scene of Panh’s mother and father watching their adult son, as if from the afterlife, on television. It’s a surprisingly effective technique.
Right off the bat, Panh confesses to a certain ambivalence about telling this story. In the film’s first-person narration (voiced, with even further detachment, by French mathematician Randal Douc), Panh writes that he isn’t seeking the past so much as it is seeking him. He also notes that he “would rather be rid of it.”
The film, then, also is part exorcism. While “The Missing Picture” could be called an animated film, it isn’t kid stuff. Passages dealing with starving people who have been reduced to eating rats, or with the Nazi-like medical experimentation practiced on humans by the Khmer Rouge are especially hard to take.
It helps, somewhat, that much of the film has the quality of a dream, even if the subject matter is, at times, nightmarish. Disturbingly graphic archival images are kept to a minimum and mixed with Khmer Rouge propaganda.
That’s also by design. If images haven’t survived that would paint a full picture of what he experienced, Panh will provide them himself, from memory. “A picture can be stolen,” says the narrator, standing in for Panh, “a thought cannot.”
As haunting as it is haunted, “The Missing Picture” leaves viewers’ heads rattling with ghosts.
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains disturbing images. In French with subtitles.