The Missing Picture, director Rithy Panh's extraordinary memoir nominated for this year's foreign language Academy Award, is about reclaiming the past - a past taken away from millions of people who lived, and died, under the Pol Pot dictatorship in mid-1970s Cambodia.
Panh, who has made other films and written books about the Cambodian genocide, and who was 11 in 1975 when Pol Pot's radical programs began, does something beautifully simple in The Missing Picture: To reconstruct his family history, he shapes and paints hundreds of clay figurines, using them, like a child playing with dolls, to reenact the forced marches, the relocation to labor camps, the mass destruction of property, the devastation, the annihilations.
Intercut with these artful tableaus - the figures set down on dirt roads, in the jungles, in simple huts, in farms, in factories - are Pol Pot propaganda films, newsreels, photographs, and other found footage. The interplay between the archival images and Panh's charmingly primitive dioramas becomes a kind of seamless collage in motion, with Panh's narration - read by Randal Douc - bringing poetry and poignancy to his recollections.
Many films have examined from many vantages the Khmer Rouge's nightmare reign, notably Roland Joffé's 1985 Oscar winner The Killing Fields. But none have the haunting resonance of Panh's. Deeply personal, full of poetry and pain, this child of a holocaust recovers the most important thing taken from him, from his family, from his people: their past.
"A picture can be stolen," says narrator Douc. "A thought cannot."
In his own profound and ingenious way, Panh has brought the pictures and the thoughts together again.
The Missing Picture **** (Out of four stars)
Directed by Rithy Panh. With the voice of Randal Douc. In French with subtitles. Distributed by Strand Releasing.
Running time: 1 hour, 32 mins.
Parent's guide: No MPAA rating (violence, atrocities, adult themes).
Playing at: Ritz Bourse.