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The Missing Picture uses clay figurines to expose the horrors of history

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Genocide is a subject of such unfathomable horror that filmmakers, for all the aural and visual techniques at their disposal, often struggle with how to explore it. Fiction tends to blunt the trauma by conforming it to narrative conventions, using individual stories as a microcosm for larger atrocities and even creating a sense of catharsis around the tragedy. (“Feel terrible about those who died,” many of these films command. “But feel good about those who survived.”) Pure documentaries, by contrast, sometimes reduce the staggering loss in human lives to facts and figures, exemplifying that remark Stalin supposedly once made about the death of millions being a statistic. No film could ever hope to make sense of anything as senseless as mass extermination. But those that meaningfully address the topic often do so either through memoir (the first-person accounts of Shoah) or through abstraction (the poetic ruminations of Night And Fog). Maybe an evil so great just can’t be processed objectively.

In his harrowing, Oscar-nominated documentary The Missing Picture, director Rithy Panh approaches the Cambodian genocide of the late 1970s through personal and abstract means. Panh was a young boy when the Khmer Rouge enacted its social engineering policies, in which large swathes of the population were relocated to agricultural labor camps and anywhere from 1.5 to 3 million people were executed or died of starvation. The director has been making films about this national trauma for most of his career, but he’s never made one quite like The Missing Picture, which combines snippets of archival footage with an innovative technique: Remarkably detailed clay figurines are arranged in elaborate dioramas to evoke Panh’s own hellish, teenage experiences at one of the camps.

Superficially, this unusual device recalls the hyper-stylized animated vignettes of Waltz With Bashir, employed as visual accompaniment to constant voiceover. But if that film was about envisioning the selective memory of its interviewees, their biased recollections mirrored by gung-ho war imagery, The Missing Picture aims to create a cinematic record of what Panh can never forget. Communist leader Pol Pot’s enforcers, seeking to cut off all ties between Cambodia and the rest of the world, largely prevented anyone from filming what occurred at the farms. (The scant documentary footage employed throughout is mostly culled from Khmer Rouge propaganda films.) This absence of visual documentation is the “missing picture” of the title—a void Panh seeks to fill with his carefully, skillfully framed tableaux. Far from a distancing device, these snapshots of suffering somehow feel more vivid, more real, than the grainy celluloid material. They suggest raw memories molded into physical form, history brought alive one evocative still image at a time.

The Missing Picture might have felt academic, even coldly removed, were it not for its scathing narration, penned by Panh (with Christophe Bataille) and read by Randal Douc. With sober eloquence, the filmmaker lays out the arrival of the Khmer Rouge, the philosophy used to justify their crimes, and the slow slipping away of his family, each member claimed by this horrible social experiment. The words alone are powerful enough. Laid over the images of tiny, forever-grimacing figurines—or of Panh holding the clay surrogates in his hands, as though he were really cradling his deceased relatives—they become almost unbearably moving. Viewers won’t walk out of The Missing Picture with any greater grasp of how human beings could perpetrate such atrocities in the name of a philosophical ideal. But they will gain a deeper, more profound understanding of the victims, men and women whose experiences are immortalized through this probing backwards glimpse.