The Missing Picture

1h 32min | Documentary | English subtitles

History, it is said, is written by the victors. But sometimes, it is the victims – or more accurately, the survivors – who get to do the writing. That is the case with Rithy Panh, a Cambodian who survived the horrors of life under the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. Panh was a mere child when he suffered the loss of his parents and siblings in the various grueling work camps to which they had been consigned. As an adult, Panh went on to become a documentary filmmaker dedicated to telling his story to the world. It was a purge aimed mainly at the intelligentsia of Cambodian society – the well-off and educated – who posed the greatest threat to the regime’s vision of a collectivist agrarian utopia.

Where, Panh asks, are all the pictures of children starving, of people being worked into the grave that more accurately portray the reality of this 20th Century holocaust? Somehow, those were not recorded and preserved for posterity. Instead, we get a series of grainy propaganda images – of workers seemingly happy in their toil, of leaders of the revolution inspiring the masses with their promises of a Communist paradise – that were officially sanctioned by the government. So Panh has taken it upon himself to provide the “missing” pictures the Pol Pot regime failed to provide to the world.

The Oscar-nominated documentary “The Missing Picture” is a stark, haunting illustration of what life was like under Pol Pot’s brutal dictatorship. The director alternates between grainy, mostly black-and- white footage taken at the time and diorama-style re-creations using strategically arranged and intricately carved clay figurines. These frozen, expressionless figures, with their searching, unblinking eyes, lift the suffering that the actual people endured to a near-surreal level, while the wistful, soft-spoken narration by Jean-Baptiste Phou echoes the human tragedy at the core. Indeed, the approach Panh has taken manages to personalize a holocaust that, given its enormous breadth and scope – an estimated one to three million people died under the regime – would otherwise be incomprehensible to the human mind. “The Missing Picture,” by “going small,” paradoxically helps us to see the tragedy writ large.