Saturday, March 15, 2014

Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge and a world of clay all figure into Rithy Panh's hypnotic Oscar-nominated documentary, THE MISSING PICTURE

We've seen it before, those horrors of Pol Pot and the 1970s Cambodian genocide. From The Killing Fields to Enemies of the People (to name just two very different films), the experience has been brought home again and again. Now, Rithy Panh, who back in 2003 gave us another documentary on the subject, S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, approaches this story -- his own and that of his family -- in a very different way. His new film THE MISSING PICTURE is a work of art: both as a finished film, and as the conduit for artfully contrived nostalgia, in which clay figurines of people are used against miniature settings to bring his movie to very odd, moving, sweet and sad life.

In French, which seems to me to be the world's most beautiful spoken language (at least as it is spoken here by the film's narrator, Randal Douc), with English subtitles, the movie offers up Mr. Panh's story (the filmmaker is shown at right) using a host of tiny carved clay figures that don't move but are simply set into their various environments. This is not, thankfully, animation. Instead, these figures -- carved with care and often featuring wonderfully expressive faces (considering their primitive but artful look) -- make fascinating stand-ins for the real people, now mostly long deceased.

The dioramas we see, featuring the figures of family, friends and town -- both in happy times before the Pol Pot regime and during it, when forced labor, hunger and death were ever-present -- are so beautifully constructed and composed that they serve, perhaps even better than other means might, as clever and thoughtful guides into a world most of us knew only via whatever journalism, Hollywood's semi-skilled narrative and later documentaries could muster.

Mr Panh's choice of medium here is surprising and rather wondrous in how well it carries us into the heart of things. Sometimes, in fact, the clay figures include (as below) a cameraman and/or director shooting the scene, or (further below) mixes the media -- which adds a certain distancing, ironic effect.

The dioramas are occasionally interrupted by the use of newsreel footage and other archival materials. (The Pol Pot regime evidently loved to camera-record its exploits: Witness all those amazing passport-like photographs of the citizens about to be exterminated.)

These photographs and moving pictures serve as a salutary jolt to goose us from the generally beautiful clay figures and background sets, as well as from the dulcet narrative voice that is hypnotically resonant at times and can very nearly carry us off to dreamland.

How a citizenry can so completely cut itself off from viewing its earlier friends, neighbors and fellow citizens as human beings -- whether in the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews, the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Cambodia and elsewhere -- is once again brought shockingly home via these photos. One scene in particular, what looks like mere children being shot in the back with deadly arrows, then falling, limbs flailing, into shallow muddy water to die, seems beyond anything human. Of course it is not. As we should know by now, "human" encompasses as bad as it can get.

Overall, The Missing Picture, a unique kind of motion-picture poetry, invites us to consider yet another way in which to discover and hold on to the past -- however horrific that past may be. The movie, another good one from Strand Releasing, opens in New York City this coming Wednesday, March 19, at Film Forum, and in Los Angeles on Friday, March 21, at Laemmle's Royal and Playhouse 7 and for Saturday and Sunday matinees only at the Claremont 5.

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