The Missing Picture is a harrowing, beautiful account of the Khmer Rouge


In The Missing Picture, screening at the Walker Art Center this weekend, Phnom Penh-born director Rithy Panh reinvents what one might think of as a documentary. The haunting film is based on Panh's own story as a teenager, when her family was forced to live in a labor camp under the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia between 1975-1979. Using archival footage and still clay figures, the film -- which was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and won the Un Certain Regard Award at the 2013 Cannes Film -- is both deeply personal and epic.


While the film covers real-life events, it's very different from a typical documentary. There are no interviews. Instead, the entire piece is narrated from a first-person perspective. Archival footage is used, but as there is a lack of any photographs from this period of his family, Panh utilizes clay figures, created by Sarith Mang, to tell the story. 

The clay figures aren't animated. Instead, the camera moves while the figures stay still. They are altered as the scenes progress, while the people they represent endure unbelievable trauma at the hands of the regime. The figures themselves are reminiscent of Edvard Munch's The Scream, epecially in later scenes. 

Panh's technique of zooming to close-ups of the clay figures is a bit like Ken Burns's technique of zooming into archival photographs. In the absence of the personal photos, Panh uses the figures as a way to evoke the horrors he and his family endured. 

The figures also allow for the story -- which itself is told in a straightforward, if brutal, account -- to achieve expressionist qualities at times. In one scene, the narrator describes Panh's brother, who disappeared before the rest of the family was sent to the labor camp (probably due to his long hair and rock 'n' roll lifestyle). The film depicts the brother flying through the air, looking down on the Khmer Rouge that wouldn't allow him to live. 


The film tells an important part of the past, and the atrocities that took place in Cambodia, in a way that is not just history, but a work of art. You won't want to miss this one. It screens exclusively at the Walker Art Center this weekend. 


The Missing Picture

Walker Art Center

7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m.  Sunday