In 1975, at age 13, filmmaker Rithy Panh’s world turned into a complete nightmare. As a child in Phnom Penh, he saw his family expelled from their urban environment and sent to the countryside of Cambodia.
The Khmer Rouge had begun its ruthless process of re-educating the population according to the communist ideology of the regime’s “brother number one,” Pol Pot. The population starved as the agrarian experiment failed, and executions removed the nonbelievers in the cause.
Rithy Panh survived, but his family did not. His film, “The Missing Picture,” an Oscar nominee this year in the foreign-language category, is an attempt to recall those years through a personal lens (he has previously made straightforward documentaries on the subject of the Khmer Rouge).
We learn early on that not a lot of film footage exists of the terrors of the killing fields; when the Khmer Rouge made movies, they were Soviet-style propaganda. In the narration (spoken in English), we hear stories of Rithy Panh’s childhood, of backbreaking labor and hunger endured while chanting upbeat party slogans.
But the most haunting part of “The Missing Picture” is the method used to bring this era to life. Carved, hand-painted clay figures stand in for the people; scenes set in rice paddies and detention camps are played out on dioramas.
It’s not an animated film. The figures do not move, but merely pose there. Sometimes they are seen against newsreels backdrops of city or countryside.
There is something eerie about inanimate objects seen in this way. Perhaps Rithy Panh is suggesting that where the Khmer Rouge sought to drain the individual character from people, the use of soulless objects is fitting.
Combined with the lilting effect of the narration (the movie is stronger on poetry than it is on historical overview), this produces a chilling but fascinating result. The filmmaker, now almost 50, is calm and reserved in relating how his parents died, and the use of figurines to stand in for people makes the loss somehow both distanced and personal.
You get the idea the “missing picture” is not just the footage of genocide, but the memory of the late ’70s in Cambodia. This movie is a singular act of remembering.
“The Missing Picture” (three and a half stars)
Filmmaker Rithy Panh recalls his own nightmarish childhood, when he and his family were put in rural work camps by the Khmer Rouge during the years of the “killing fields.” Small clay figures (not animated) are used to embody the people of this story, a technique that is distancing but also eerie.
Rating: Not rated; probably R for subject matter
Opening: Friday at SIFF Film Center