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Having established himself as cinema’s pre-eminent chronicler of his native Cambodia’s nightmarish late-1970s dictatorship, director Rithy Panh now addresses his own family’s hideous experiences with The Missing Picture (L’Image manquante). A deliberately distanced but often harrowing vision of a living hell, this painful memoir based on Panh’s own book The Elimination will find plentiful festival and television exposure after its high-profile Cannes debut, along the lines of his widely-screened documentaries S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2003) and Duch, Master of the Forges of Hell (2012).
Panh’s imaginative way of dealing with events that resulted in the deaths of his parents, sisters and other relatives is to use hundreds of simple clay figures, hand-carved and hand-painted to a remarkable degree of expressiveness by Sarith Mang. These dolls stand in for the victims and perpetrators of the Khmer Rouge’s atrocities. From 1975 to 1979 under the leadership of Pol Pot, the regime inflicted cruelly harsh policies on the country they renamed Kampuchea. Their ideology was modeled partly on Communist teachings, most notably China’s ‘Great Leap Forward’ under Chairman Mao, and partly, we’re told here, on Jean Jacques Rousseau’s ‘noble savage’ concepts exalting the purity of pre-industrial civilizations.
First-person narration is presented as if spoken by Panh himself, although narration duties are handled with calm matter-of-factness by Randal Douc. Indeed, the text is credited solely to Christophe Bataille, who collaborated with Panh on 2012’s well-received The Elimination. The litany of abuses and horrors is illustrated by the carved figures placed in elaborate dioramas – or superimposed by deliberately rough-edged visual effects – and chillingly contrasted with rosy-tinted recollections from Panh’s pre-revolutionary childhood in the lively, boisterously westernized capital Phnom Penh.
Serving as his own editor, Panh makes effective and copious use of archive footage taken from the regime’s own propaganda files. These scratchy, eerie monochrome images often look like they were shot in the 1920s – or even earlier – rather than less than forty years ago, and provide an invaluable window on events still best known to many via Roland Joffe’s Oscar-winning drama The Killing Fields (1983). But as Panh remarks, our conception of the Khmer Rouge, and indeed his own memories, are full of “missing pictures”, and he expounds in poetically philosophical fashion on the limitations of our image-dominated comprehension of the world.
Such passages sometimes tend unhelpfully towards the nebulously abstract in a work whose strength is its clear-eyed engagement with actual events – shots of surging ocean waves likewise serve principally to disrupt from the flow of Panh and Bataille’s passionately polemical narrative. A more pervasive distraction is Marc Marder’s near-incessant score, which deploys mournful strings to underline the emotion of sentiments that speak for themselves – speak with the stark eloquence of an unforgiving, unforgetting survivor.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Production companies: CDP, Bophana, Arte France
Director/Editor: Rithy Panh
Screenwriters: Rithy Panh, Christophe Bataille
Producers: Catherine Dussart
Directors of photography: Prum Messa, Rithy Panh
Music: Marc Marder
Sales: Films Distribution, Paris
No MPAA rating, 96 minutes
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