When confronted with great loss, one’s facilities and penchant for rationality can be jeopardized beyond repair. Modern history’s great tragedies are more often than not studies in the political forces that shaped the time. But so rarely are there genuine concerns for seeing the macro through the micro. Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave serves as one of the better contemporary examples of cinema that studies a singular man’s experience in the face of social and political injustice, effectively bridging the gap between overarching historical context and a solely-motivated human piece. But all this comes through a filter. Adapted from Solomon Northup’s memoir by John Ridley, 12 Years a Slave remains a work indebted to understanding its historical context rather than living the historical context. Rithy Panh’s rich The Missing Picture serves as a remedy for this issue, in that the work is a carefully constructed self-therapy of Panh’s experience during Pol Pot’s reign as dictator of Cambodia.
It’s Rithy Panh’s method of recreating events that has garnered acclaim - shaping miniature clay figurines in diorama settings - though to imply that it’s simply a novelty would be misleading. The detail in each figurine possesses a rich sense of contextual memory, suggesting that the atrocities that Panh endured are the kind that sears the mind and drowns the heart (the image of coastal waves submerging the camera is deployed three times, each image more palpable than the last). Constructing sets of a Cambodian city rich with life and vibrant in color, Panh follows it with footage of the Khmer Rouge occupying a now decrepit city. Following the economic success of Mao’s Great Leap Forward in China, Pol Pot would enact his “Super Great Leap Forward”, transforming Cambodia into an agrarian state of self-sufficiency. Trade ceased. Money abolished. Adopting a warped Marxian perspective, Pot’s dictatorship stripped people of their identities and instigated the death of a quarter of Cambodia’s population.
The Missing Picture refers to a part of Panh’s life that has been stripped from his consciousness. The memories - the move from city to internment camp, the forced labor, the death of his father and family, the memories of reflecting on his past while enslaved - are there, but the sense of being a human and of having an identity are not. While The Missing Picture may have images that suggest the avant-garde, Panh is clear with his penetrating voiceover. The Missing Picture is Panh’s attempt to realize the memories that haunt him, carefully sculpting every figurine and composing each frame with a remarkable command for detail. He’s leaving them behind in this piece of personal and historical introspection, detailing not just his survival tale, but the immeasurable atrocity that tore through an entire people. Provided that the picture is composed of these carefully constructed dioramas may suggest that a cinematic quality is not felt. This, fortunately, is not true, as The Missing Picture excels as a piece that transcends traditional boundaries of narrative cinema. Its prose suggests a literary backdrop that combines the elegant and flighty qualities of Haruki Murakami. It possesses a detailed historical account of personal struggle in the same vein as Art Spiegelman’s Maus graphic novels. All of which coalesce within a cinematic framework akin to the travelogue of Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil. These frames of reference merely scratch the surface of what Rithy Panh is doing in The Missing Picture, which, like all the aforementioned works, exist in its own realm of creative tenacity.