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The Missing Picture:  “A million miles from an enjoyable experience, but a film you won’t easily forget.”

And still they come: it’s already April, and last season’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominees continue to saunter lackadaisically into Berkeley. This week’s tardy contestant is L’image manquante (The Missing Picture), a Cambodian-French co-production opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, April 4.

Written and directed by Rithy Panh – best known in these parts for his grueling 2003 documentary S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing MachineThe Missing Picture is a genuinely unique feature. Part fictional, part semi-autobiographical, the film blends clay recreations of pre- and post-revolutionary Cambodian life with rare archival footage of the aftermath of Democratic Kampuchea’s ‘Year Zero’. You really haven’t seen anything else quite like it.

Opening with footage of decaying, horribly stored film stock – the stuff of nightmares for film fans and archivists alike – The Missing Picture’s title refers to material things lost or destroyed during Cambodia’s four-year long experiment in Maoist revolution. Director Panh’s personal ‘missing pictures’, however, still exist in his memories, which are recreated here via finely detailed clay figurines and dioramas crafted by fellow survivor Sarith Mang Panh.

The overarching narrative of Cambodia’s ‘70s revolution is well-known: given a boost by America’s Vietnam War-driven ‘secret bombing’, the Khmer Rouge entered the capital city of Phnom Penh on April 17 1975, promptly emptying it and sending its former occupants to work the land. Within four years of the country’s ‘liberation’, almost two million Cambodians had succumbed to the hardships of malnutrition, slave labor, and ‘re-education’.

The horrors of those times — including (because no footage exists) the deportation itself – are, of necessity, recreated in The Missing Picture by Sarith Panh’s simple but beautifully crafted figurines. The film is director Panh’s bold attempt to make real his cruel but vital memories; as his narration notes, ‘when we discover a picture on a screen that is neither painting nor shroud then it is not missing’.

By and large, the conceit works well. Sarith Panh’s figurines are, for the most part, completely motionless and silent, their mute testimony intercut with snippets of rare (and equally silent) Khmer Rouge-lensed propaganda footage. This footage is frequently most revealing, focusing as it does on three main activities: rapturously received appearances by the fan-carrying Pol Pot and other Khmer Rouge dignitaries; workers digging holes; and workers aimlessly shifting large, heavy rocks from one spot to another. There’s no footage of Cambodians relaxing, eating, or playing sports – this was the purest of revolutions, with room for neither individualism nor private ownership (save, perhaps, for the odd piece of cutlery or cookware).

The Missing Picture, of course, didn’t end up winning the big prize on Oscar night, and it’s easy to understand why: the film is relentlessly downbeat, its tone appropriately funereal and grim. Sitting somewhat uncomfortably between the documentary and dramatic genres, Panh’s film is probably closest in style to the ‘recreations’ of documentarian Errol Morris. It’s a million miles from an enjoyable experience, but a film you won’t easily forget.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. 

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box...