We are under the spell of The Missing Picture – an instant candidate for the year’s best documentary even in the year’s first week – from its earliest words. A little figure of clay is held on screen, forlorn, childlike, naively sculpted. Says the narrator-director: “I want to hold it close. It is my father.” Image by image, word by word, simplicities build the story of a true-life national tragedy. More childlike figures appear, placed in primitive or pitiless landscapes. More plain words of recall echo with the monstrous and unspoken. “It’s strange to drink mud.” “It took me years to walk on that land. Bare feet on bare thorns . . . ”
This harrowing film about a country undergoing political convulsion does everything that the insomnia-curing Mandela – the week’s companion film about a nation in upheaval – doesn’t. It engages, informs, moves, amazes, disturbs. It derails our way of looking at and thinking about a moment in history. Cambodian director Rithy Panh addresses the Pol Pot years. His own family perished at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. He was a child when Phnom Penh was depopulated, beginning the agrarian regime that filled the countryside with labour camps, internment villages, killing fields.
If you expect the usual – archive footage, witness-survivors – prepare for the unforeseen and unimagined. Panh stages virtually the whole film with clay models. It is like The Magic Roundabout gone nightmarish, gone infernal. He has been crafting these mud-coloured figurines all his grown life, the only way to recall and record a virtually un-photographed history. (His last doc, S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine ran into the frustrations of a terror regime that destroyed nearly all its records.)
The Lilliputian model humans dressed in their rags are absurdly poignant. Starving; suffering; dying in model landscapes no less gnomic while also movingly faux-naif. The known facts are excruciating. Siblings, parents, friends were slain by starvation, cruelty, neglect. Yet the film’s rejection of rhetoric enhances its impact. We fill with our own emotions and imagination the blanks left in the mud-moulded faces, the child-art bodies (sometimes gently hunched in woe), and the toy-town-ish fields where Plastimation kiddie adventures should flourish but where, instead, we witness the pageant of a generation bleeding its lives, dreams and hopes into the ground.
Panh reserves his only outright, articulated scorn for those who let it happen. For those outside Cambodia who cheered Pol Pot as they had cheered Mao. The few archive photos shown here, of destitution, misery, cruelty, elicit from the director the words: “Those in Paris who loved our slogans. Did they see these pictures . . . ?” Possibly, in their exculpation, not. Panh’s very title gives them their excuse. But after this film, with its blend of evidenced history, reconjured emotion, and modelwork used to deconstruct messianic myth – a roman à clay? – there will be no more room for romancers of the Khmer Rouge past.