When he was 13 years old, Rithy Panh lost nearly everything in the jungles of Cambodia. After his family's house in the city was burned to the ground, Panh's father stopped eating and died. His mother died. His sisters and nephews died. Khmer Rouge zealots destroyed Panh's family as part of a nightmarish "re-education" program that killed 1.8 million civilians between 1975 and 1979, but the Cambodian teenager still held onto a couple of precious possessions: his memories and his imagination.
In The Missing Picture (now playing New York and Los Angeles and expanding April 4), Panh uses two-inch clay figurines to reenact scenes he witnessed in Cambodia's infamous "killing fields." Nominated for a Best Foreign Language Oscar, the movie creates haunting tableaux by juxtaposing mute sculptures of monks, children, market women, water buffaloes and gun-wielding terrorists against miniature landscapes and the regime's own propaganda film footage.
"I was looking for a way to tell the story of what happened, but I was involved so directly in this tragedy that it would have been very hard for me to make a fiction film," Panh said during a brief visit to Los Angeles last month. At the same time, he felt uniquely qualified to bear witness as a filmmaker. Panh, who eventually escaped to France before returning as an adult to Cambodia, said "I feel it would be very difficult for someone who never lived through genocide to direct a film about genocide."
For Panh, clay figures offered an ingenious solution to a long-standing problem: There were virtually no historical records documenting dictator Pol Pot's war crimes from the perspective of the victims who'd been forcibly evacuated from capital city Phnom Penh to work in rice fields. "The Khmer Rouge tried to delete everything," Panh noted. "They tried to erase our past, our personality, our land, our sentiment. What we tried to do in The Missing Picture was to reconstruct our identity, to bring it back to the people through cinema."
Refugee camp survivor Sarith Mang Panh, Panh's assistant at the Bophana: Audiovisual Resource Center, played a pivotal role in bringing Cambodia's secret history to life. Panh recalled, "I asked Sarith to make some models of my home that had been destroyed by the Khmer Rouge using my memory to tell him how it looked. Then I asked him to produce a young boy to live in this house. I noticed Sarith had a very pure talent and decided we could use his clay figurines to tell my story."
Panh previously made several Khmer Rouge documentaries before he decided to get personal with The Missing Picture. "When you say that 1.8 million people died because of the Khmer Rouge, it means a lot but in a way it means nothing," he explained. "It's just a number. But in fact these are 1.8 million different stories, different relationships. I wanted to put a name on a face. Sometimes if you can tell one personal story with a lot of sincerity, it can become a universal story."
The film's hand-made aesthetic summons elemental forces of nature well-suited to a child's point of view, said Panh. "When I was a young boy, we did not have toys like today so we'd go to the river, collect the clay and produce animals and little characters. In this era of digital special effects, I think it's good to work with our hands and our hearts, to use water and clay, to dry it in the air from the sun. This brings you back to the element of life."
The Missing Picture recounts a litany of horrors witnessed by Panh, yet the labor camp hardships failed to break his spirit. How did he survive the ordeal and persevere to become an artist? Panh said, "I am here today not because I am stronger than the others but because people helped me to get here. They are not here any more but I wanted give them back their dignity. If you can keep something very personal, like a song, like a color, like a story, deep in your heart, then nobody can destroy that. Nobody can destroy your imagination, nobody can destroy your love."