“Sometimes silence is a scream.”
Such is the conclusion the unnamed protagonist of The Missing Picture comes to, after pondering his father’s starvation-suicide at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. The unusual style of this poetic documentary is anchored by the intricate clay figurines made for the film, representatives of the Old and New people of Cambodia; that is, those that laboured under the reign of totalitarian leader Pol Pot, and those that enforced it.
The man behind the narrator and his expressions of sorrow and nostalgia bring these still clay people to life, inducing a trance-like state in the watcher that is unnerving in its evocations. Combining flickering documentary footage with a seamless soundscape that is embedded in every scene like an echo of the past, The Missing Picture gently ushers your imagination to envisage moving scenes of family gatherings, burials, confrontation and betrayal, often with just the image of a single handcrafted clay boy. It’s almost like reading a picture-book. The precise recreation of the environments of his childhood is accompanied by a voice-over that embodies an untraversable distance of time. While narrated in French, his tone is that of a man who experienced horrors as a child, and still does not comprehend why it had to happen; he laments, “The people were lied to… At the start of all totalitarianism is falsity.”
Insights like these are peppered throughout the film; there is a reason why the Khmer Rouge communist dictatorship in Cambodia – where “equality” of property possession and goods really meant more for one man and a mix of famine, poverty and forced labour for the rest of the population – is reminiscent of Mao and Stalin. The latter’s name is shown emblazoned on a book beside Pol Pot as he waves to the masses in a propaganda film. There is even a moment of black humour in the showing of one such ridiculous film, the actors comically falling with arrows in their chests, their guns hanging limply by their sides. In 20/20 hindsight, it is easy to laugh at the attempts at mind-control, but Panh’s sober documentary shows us that the reality of endless slogans and inhumane cruelty was something you had to abide by, or else pay the consequences for. Those that disobeyed were labelled as ‘the enemy’ and thus cut down. The Khmer Rouge essentially initiated a genocide in its own land, and to this day they are paying the consequences for it.
There is an in-depth scope to the research in The Missing Picture, yet it is really the narrator’s story that he feels the need to explore. His broken childhood and unorthodox techniques in examining it have a very subtle, suggestive emotive power that offsets any tinges of self-indulgence. The anonymity of his narrator lends a great weight in making you believe his side of things; it has the feel of being an objective God voice, while his insights are very much subjective. Yet there is no doubt that the hand of injustice was dealt to his people. Powerful and moving, The Missing Picture is an important contribution to modern history, and a noble account of one man’s quest for understanding what should never have happened.
Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
The Missing Picture is in select cinemas across Australia from March 20