Cambodian director Rithy Panh was eleven years old when the Khmer Rouge took control of his native country in April 1975. In the forced labor camp the Panh family was sent to, starvation and exhaustion caused the death of young Panh's parents, sisters, and much of the rest of his family. An impression like this lasts for a lifetime, and after escaping to Thailand in 1979 (shortly before the fall of the diabolical regime), he made his way to France. It was there that he came into contact with filmmaking, and it was there that his almost 25-year career of documentaries on the darkest period in Cambodian history got started.
While most of his documentaries are more conventional (talking heads and all), and he usually takes a neutral approach to his subjects in the hope of letting their actions and words dig their own graves, this time around he has created something far more personal and at times poetic. The idea behind this documentary, and partial memoir, is to show the image of the period as seen by the millions of Cambodians who suffered through it. To look through the eyes of an eyewitness, accompanied by the patter of Panh himself recounting incidents and feelings of the years in the labor camps. Since the only images left (both still and moving) of the almost four years of Khmer Rouge rule are propaganda outings by the regime itself, this is the 'missing picture' from the title. Since there is nothing actually to be shown, Panh recreates these images by using wood carved figurines of people and animals in miniature models of the scenes, then described in voice-over narration by French-Cambodian actor Randal Douc, himself exiled by the regime at a very young age. The artificial scenes combined with the often poetic language of Panh's memories create a harrowing image of life in forced labor, yet at the same time make this documentary an artistic triumph, and the most mesmerizing thing seen so far here in Cannes.
In terms of content, this collection of deeply personal tales about suffering and death is not something we don't already know from history books or even Panh's previous works. The facts are known. What makes this stand out from the dry fact-droning are Panh's own words and reflections on the period, sometimes a strong indictment, yet sometimes surprisingly neutral and forgiving. In his earlier work, Panh is just as interested in painting a picture of the cruel regime as in laying blame and pointing fingers, however subtle his method. Here, though, he only singles out a (unnamed) camp commander, giving more room for his own thoughts and feelings and those of his family during their years in the camps. As such, this is both a documentary and a memoir showing the detrimental effect these cruelties had on the psyche of one family in particular and a nation as a whole. And all told in language which, if put in print, would create a beautiful poetic novella. This is a singular piece of work that deserves to be seen, because it fills, even if only from one person's viewpoint, the void of the missing image in Cambodia's history.