This is an absolutely harrowing foreign documentary from Cambodia, that was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 86th Academy Awards. It lost that statue to Italy’s “The Great Beauty” this past March, and didn’t see an official U.S. release until almost 3 weeks after the ceremony. With just one more film to review amongst the latest Oscar ceremony’s nominees(watch for “Omar” from Palestine, to be reviewed here soon), this is easily the finest one—even if it manages to defy easy categorization. Should it have been in the Best Documentary Feature category, instead of where it was ultimately entered? At the very least, it would make a gripping and unnerving double feature with “The Act of Killing”, a Best Doc nominee(and what should have been the winner in that field of five)that utilizes a similar conceit to convey a horrendous event from world history. But where “The Act of Killing” goes the route of “live” recreations to get across the absolute horror of its subject matter, “The Missing Picture” uses a roughly 50/50 mix of actual news footage and still life representations incorporating miniature clay figurines. The device barely mutes the level of terror creeping upon viewing it. If anything, this unconventional treatment, chronicling Pol Pot’s rise to power in Cambodia, manages to enhance it.
Director and screenwriter Rithy Panh is a now 50-year-old survivor of the atrocities committed by Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge. His family was driven out of Phnom Penh after the April 17th, 1975 takeover by that Communist Party of Kampuchea, and over the next few years Panh watched his parents, relatives and siblings perish to slave labor and malnutrition until he managed to escape to Thailand in 1979. If you are unaware of the systematic violence enacted by the Khmer Rouge regime, this is as good a place to educate yourself as any, I suppose. So much footage of what actually occurred in Cambodia in the latter part of that decade has either been suppressed or eradicated, that Panh attempts to provide us with “the missing pictures”. The painted, expressive clay figurines help him accomplish this task more profoundly than one can imagine. It has been estimated that over two million people died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, through a combination of execution, disease and starvation. This is must-see filmmaking that presents its story in a matter-of-fact manner, but with probably the most unique method possible.
One note: the original version of “The Missing Picture” was narrated in French by Randal Douc, but the Netflix streaming cut that I experienced had an English narration by Jean-Baptiste Phou. I can’t see how this change can possibly detract from the impact of the feature at all(feel free to inform me otherwise, if you’ve encountered both versions), but I include the notation if you care to obtain the actual DVD, which should carry both options. Either way, don’t bypass “The Missing Picture”. It’s a sobering portrait of this often hellish world we exist in—and it’s one of 2014’s finest releases. Grade: A