Director Rithy Panh was 13 when the Khmer Rouge deported his family from Phnom Penh. Now in his fifties, and having made a series of documentaries about his homeland, he turned to a more personal project with The Missing Picture.
Finding that hardly any documentary evidence remained from the times of the Khmer Rouge atrocities, he decided to make a film using clay figurines to tell his story and that of his family. The figurines re-enact the hardships Panh and his family endured in the fields where they were forced to work with very little food or medical attention in a collective farm where no-one had any personal belongings other than a spoon and clothes that were compulsorily dyed black. The Khmer Rouge punished (and often executed) people for crimes as simple as picking mangoes to counteract the ever pervasive hunger. Many people starved to death, or died of preventible diseases.
The result is a film that is striking in its imagination and devastating in its emotional impact, though it can be acknowledged that it is unremittingly grim. Even the scenes showing happier times in Phnom Penh, before the Khmer Rouge, only underline the horror of the Killing Fields rather than adding any lightness. Which is less an actual criticism than an acknowledgement that this is not an easy film to watch.
Some commentators have said that the figurines, although very effective in conveying the powerlessness and silence of the Cambodian people during this time period, also dilute the emotional impact of the story. I didn't find this, I found that somehow they increased the feeling of shocked horror at everything that was happening.
The Missing Picture is showing at Edinburgh Filmhouse until Thursday 20 February.