The genocide in Cambodia in the 1970s at the hands of the Khmer Rouge has inspired many books and movies, most famously the 1984 Oscar-winner The Killing Fields. But the most unusual might be this year's Oscar-nominated film The Missing Picture. In it, filmmaker Rithy Panh uses clay figurines to recall his experience of genocide.
Panh has been making films since 1989 — nearly two-dozen documentaries, essay films and a few fiction stories. Nearly all are directly or indirectly about the genocide Panh survived. He says, in a way, they all tell the same story.
"I make only one film. Only the same film. And I don't mind, you know. I never want to be a film director — I want to be a teacher. But it's my story," he says. His quest has been "how to film my story."
Until The Missing Picture, Panh told his story through films about other people. These films explored the genocide's methods, prisons, masterminds, survivors. He's won many international prizes for these films.
But Panh never filmed the personal details of own story, how he survived after the Khmer Rouge Communist Party came to power in 1975.
It was the day before Panh's 13th birthday. On arriving in the capital of Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge bombed and burned banks, theaters and libraries. Suddenly Panh and his family (and millions more) were ordered out of the cities and into the countryside to do manual labor.
"Soldiers showed up, and people were thrown out of their houses, patients out of the hospitals — the scenes were heartbreaking," says journalist Elizabeth Becker, who's reported on Cambodia for 40 years.
Nearly 2 million Cambodians — almost a quarter of the country's population — died in the four years following the Khmer Rouge's arrival. They starved in forced work camps. Whole families were tortured and executed. Panh saw much of his family, including his father and mother, starve to death.
He escaped Cambodia in 1979, and since then, Panh has searched for images of the nightmarish reality, but few have survived. Those are the "missing pictures," he says, that give his film its title.
So the director decided to fill in the missing picture with small clay figurines. The meticulous miniature scenes restage his experience and his world, down to tiny paper lilies.
It was satisfying not only artistically, Panh says, but also personally. "And I think to tell the story, it's good to work with your hand, with your heart, with clay, with water, with the sun, you know, to dry it, come to work with the elements of life," he says.
As food rations dwindle, figures appear thinner, and one has its hands raised to its cheeks in a wail of distress. Panh also stages his dreams and shares his strategies for survival, spoken by a narrator who stands in for the boy Rithy Panh was.
"To hang on, you must hide within yourself a strength," the narrator says, "a memory, an idea that no one can take from you. For a picture can be stolen, a thought cannot."
Panh was not alone in the work, though. He worked with two screenwriters and has a group of longtime collaborators whose contributions are essential. He says he struggled to make The Missing Picture until he learned that his assistant could sculpt figurines of clay. Another collaborator, musician Marc Marder, has scored 18 of Panh's films.
"I think the music for Rithy's films has to be like these clay figurines in fact," says Marder. "It is the soul of the people. And it's not really a music, it's never an illustrative music. But this score, as for all of Rithy's films, I think I'm trying to [compose] music as soul of the people who are not there."
For this film, Marder says, he combined and electronically manipulated sounds, including Khmer Rouge rally songs, until they become almost unrecognizable. Panh says he asked Marder to twist and distort the music of Khmer Rouge propaganda so that the audience would experience the pain it evokes in him.
Panh has devoted much time and energy to retrieving Cambodia's memories — he co-founded a center to recover images of Cambodia and he fosters filmmaking in that country — but still Panh says he has great respect for forgetting.
"I like people who have the capacity to forget. I think that to forget is a good thing. Forgetting is good. But sometimes I cannot. For me I cannot. I continue to talk with those who died every night, every day. Sometime I see them. And so I have to deal with that," he says softly. "I have to deal in one way. And how to deal with this pain, with this debt. And in another way I have to learn to live again."
This conflict between memory and forgetfulness is at the core of his films as well as his life, he says. And he'll continue searching his country's history for the truth, the still-missing pictures. His next film is set during the French colonial occupation of Cambodia.