It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
With "The Missing Picture," writer-director Rithy Panh takes a daunting and emotionally draining topic—the atrocities Cambodians suffered under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge—and presents it in a way that's personal, imaginative and even strangely beautiful.
It's a story the documentarian knows all too well because it is his own. Panh was just 13 in 1975 when he and his family were hauled away from their home in Phnom Penh along with million of others to toil in labor camps for the purpose of creating a Communist utopia. "You must embrace the proletarian situation," they're told—the repeated slogans ringing in their ears over loudspeakers as they slave away in the mud and the dirt and the rice fields.
Panh depicts the horrors he suffered and witnessed in a way that makes them unexpectedly accessible: He uses hand-carved, meticulously painted clay figurines, arranged in elaborate dioramas. There are hundreds of them with a wide array of expressions and experiences: women carrying fruit, kids playing with a dog and—once the army invades Cambodia's capital city—armed soldiers and starving, dying workers.
He often juxtaposes and seamlessly integrates these figures with official propaganda clips, highlighting the gaping chasm between spin and reality, as well as with found footage of what life was really like in the camps, day in and day out. Mixed with impressionistic imagery, poetic narration and evocative sound design, the result is disarming in its creativity. ("The Missing Picture" was nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign language film this year; the prize went to Italy's "The Great Beauty.")