Rithy Panh's documentary, The Missing Picture, explores the horrors inflicted by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979. Winning the top prize at A Certain Regard in the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, The Missing Picture is one of the five Oscar nominees in this year's foreign language category.
A personal movie, The Missing Picture begins when the revolutionaries drove the two million people living in Phnom Penh to faraway farmlands, an ill-conceived step that caused unimaginable suffering, starvation and death. Phnom Penh turned into a ghost city, and the family of Panh, who was 11 then, was also hounded out and tortured.
There are no photographs, though, of the terror that was unleashed by the Khmer Rouge, and hence the film's title. But to compensate for the missing imagery, the director uses clay figurines and words to narrate this ghastly tale. Of the few pictures we see in the movie, one shows his extended family before Pol Pot took over, a family revelling in music and laughter.
Panh manipulates the figures and throws in a wee bit of archival material to paint what appears like a poem, whose searing pain will move men to tears. However, a comprehensive footage would have made the documentary far more powerful than what it turns out to be. The text, written by Christophe Bataille and narrated in a mournful tone by Randal Douc, works to a point, with some portions sounding a trifle unnecessary.
Nonetheless, Panh manages to delve into the Cambodian genocide - in which two million people were slaughtered -- in a way that breaks a viewer's heart.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran saw The Missing Picture at the Cannes Film Festival)