Last year I promised to indulge myself in the many documentaries that were getting buzz and good ink throughout the year. The documentary is a genre that I often unfairly ignore, and I understand that in order for me to embrace film as a whole, I need to embrace all avenues. Just like my gradual warming to the Animated Film genre, it took me a while to fully embrace the Documentary, but once I did my love truly soared.
What I found this year were a number of documentary features that tried unique ways to explore a troubled past/present, and three of them found themselves with Oscar’s stamp of approval (all of them losing to those soul singing sistas). ‘The Square’, which was my favorite of Oscar’s nominees, was the most conventionally told documentary in the mix, but it explored the current political unrest in Egypt with such passion and understanding. ‘The Act of Killing’ was not a film that really sat well with me. Exploring the Indonesian atrocities from a truly cinematic and artistic vantage point seemed like an inspired idea, and yet it didn’t really strike the chords I think it wanted to; at least not for me.
‘The Missing Picture’ rests somewhere in the middle.
‘The Missing Picture’ tells a very tragic and heartbreaking story of one man’s life in politically disastrous Cambodia. Rithy Panh fled the country for Thailand in 1979, after experiencing terrible treatment under the Pol Pot regime. To say that I was unaware of this slice of world history would be a complete understatement, considering that I had never heard of these atrocities in any avenue. Sometimes I feel like Americans as a whole are so horrifically uneducated as to the ways of the world in general. We live in a bubble of comfort and turn our ears away from all that goes on away from us. Not everyone, obviously, but as a whole.
There are so many beautifully composed ideas here with regards to Panh’s reflection on the conditions he endured, but also the guilt associated with his inability to stop it. I really admire the honesty with which Panh broached this difficult subject.
The artistic merits here are bountiful. The use of clay figurines are not only visually inspired, but they play well into the themes of childhood innocence lost, that purity that is ‘missing’ from the world he grew up in. The use of archived footage spliced between these ‘play sets’ was jarring and effective. My only qualm here is the monotone narration that I felt lessened the impact and made the film somewhat hard to maintain focus on. It was delivered in such a dull and apathetic way that I found it hard to really invest in, despite the weight of the film’s message.
I give this a B, mostly because so many of these elements line up just right. It’s just a shame that the delivery betrays the film’s set up and leaves me wishing that Panh had found someone with a sharper way of delivering his message, vocally.