A few years ago, a documentary called Marwencol came out detailing the efforts of artist Mark Hogancamp to create a scale model of an entire fictional town. The model’s creation was an act of therapy for the man who, after being attacked and nearly beaten to death by a group of teenagers outside a bar, was left with virtually no memory of his life up to that point.
Though the documentary was filmed with sensitivity, there remained a little bit of a sideshow element to Hogancamp’s efforts, if not his situation. In his new documentary, Rithy Panh performs a similar act to exorcise memories he knows all too well, though much of the evidence was lost in the chaos surrounding him. The figurines in the spotlight of The Missing Picture are in no form an escape from reality. They are, in fact, the only thing that gives Panh the chance to confirm the validity of what he and the people of Cambodia endured during Pol Pot’s reign during the latter half of the 1970s. (Panh previously directed another lauded documentary on the subject: 2002’s S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine.) As critic Jonathon Romney points out, “Panh’s figurines are this film’s equivalent of the toys often used by therapists, which enable children to articulate traumas and abuses that they might otherwise keep silent.”
Not that silence has been at issue with regards to the subject matter. Much has been documented about the disastrous results of ideology run amok, but as is often the case with works of art struggling to reckon with massacres of unthinkable scope, the trees can tend to get lost for the forest. The Missing Picture avoids that particular pitfall by remaining resolutely first-person, matching immediacy with the power of Panh’s expressionistic apparatus.
The film’s hook, as it were, centers around the quest for the titular missing picture, and the absence thereof precipitating Panh’s strategy to convey the horrors of unmitigated Marxist nightmare through his lumpen, crude, even somewhat primitive dioramas. The figures themselves have a sullied grandeur to them, as though they weren’t sculpted from clay, paint or wood but rather ashes and tears. They bear mute witness, but Panh deploys an even more distancing voice-over narration (written by Christophe Bataille) which, at times, feels familiar and alien simultaneously, much like a Chris Marker work. The Marker point of comparison makes sense, not just because Picture is at least partially an essay film, but also because the movie’s focus on the stillness of the figurines juxtaposed with fleeting glimpses of motion (vis-à-vis newsreel and propaganda from Pol Pot’s regime) calls to mind Marker’s brilliant La Jetée, itself a haunted meditation on memory, time and mortality.
The missing picture turns out to be a most somber MacGuffin, with Panh’s assertion that the cinema itself is, while not truth incarnate, a testament to its makers intentions. Ultimately, Panh concludes that though “a picture can be stolen, a thought cannot.” Nor, once it’s been experienced, can a work of art.
The Walker Art Center is presenting the Twin Cities premiere of Panh’s Academy Award-nominated film this weekend. There are three showings — one Friday, two Saturday. Ticket information is available here.