The Missing Picture is so immediate, so vital, it practically breathes. This disarmingly subtle documentary-memoir hybrid by Cambodian-born director Rithy Panh tells a story of horrors: In 1975, when Panh was 13 years old and living a normal life with his family in Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge, under the leadership of Pol Pot, invaded the city and drove its inhabitants into the countryside, decreeing that they leave everything, including family photographs and mementos, behind. There, they were forced to work as field laborers; the goal was to create a pure, agrarian-based Communist society. Anyone with too much education — any education — was considered untrustworthy. Eyeglasses, seen as a symbol of learning, were forbidden among the masses. Perceived enemies of the state were tortured and executed. Panh escaped to Thailand in 1979, eventually settling in Paris to make documentary films, but the rest of his family did not survive. Here's the clincher: Because so little documentary footage of the period exists, Panh tells his story mostly through the use of carved clay figures that represent himself, his family, and his fellow citizens. The film is unlike anything I've ever seen, a strange and beautiful work that comes off as both haunted and charmed. The horror of Panh's boyhood past is real, but the poetry he makes from it is just as tangible. In their startling innocence, the dioramas Panh has created -- of pre-1975 family get-togethers, of workers toiling in the fields, of soldiers executing prisoners -- resemble children's playthings, though they also have a talismanic power. They're motionless, but not lifeless.
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