‘Missing Picture’ uses carved figurines in account of Khmer Rouge camps

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

More in Life

This beefy ex-cop has a delicate hobby: intricate paper-cut art

You can see Tom Sacco’s creations at the upcoming Everett Art Walk.

Slow-roasted vegetables make sumptuous sauce for pasta

Make the basic but good spaghetti with red sauce blissfully better with this recipe.

Mocking meatloaf: One man’s loaf is another man’s poison

Some don’t like it and some do. Here are six meatloaf recipes to try.

Roasted Brussels sprouts can be the apple of picky eater’s eye

Toasted sesame seeds and diced apple add flavors that compliment the sprouts’ earthiness.

Arlington eagle fest wants your nature-themed artwork, haiku

Local residents of an artistic bent are invited to submit… Continue reading

Hau Tran sings as Vietnamese seniors eat at Homage’s Center for Healthy Living on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018 in Lynnwood, Wa. Each weekday the center offers its room for various cultures to get together for activities and lunch while speaking their native languages. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
Seniors of four cultures gather for food, fitness and fun

Homage’s Center for Healthy Living offers a venue for programs in the seniors’ native languages.

Ethnic communities eagerly await Lunar New Year on Feb. 16

By Homage Senior Services Ethnic communities around the world are getting eager… Continue reading

Kia Rio subcompact takes a classy step up in 2018

A new design, roomier cabin, and better fuel economy are among the improvements on the 2018 Kia Rio.

What’s new for 2018 for travelers in Scandinavia

Sweden, Norway and Finland have embarked on many urban, cultural and transit projects.

Most Read