Most Americans know about the horrors of the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia from the Academy Award-winning film The Killing Fields (1984). I visited Cambodia in 1988, nine years after the Khmer Rouge were driven from power after killing an estimated 1,700,000 people in just four years. As it happened, bootleg VHS copies of The Killing Fields were circulating while I was there. I asked my guide what she thought about the film. She replied, “It didn’t show how bad things really were.” Since I had been appalled by the atrocities portrayed in The Killing Fields, it was hard for me to comprehend what she was implying.
The Missing Picture is a documentary directed by Rithy Panh, who was 13 years old when the Khmer Rouge took power and drove him and his family out of the capital of Phnom Penh and into labor camps in the countryside. Both of his parents died, as did his siblings. Panh escaped, eventually making his way to Paris, where he became a filmmaker. The Missing Picture mixes archival footage with static clay figures to tell the moving story of the tragedy that Panh and his family endured.
I don’t mean in any way to denigrate The Missing Picture, and I hope that as many people as possible see it, but last year Cambodia entered a film, Lost Loves, that covered the same ground and, using live actors, was more effective. Written by Kauv Southeary and her husband, Chhay Bora, it centers on daily life under the Khmer Rouge from the point-of-view of Southeary’s mother, whose father, husband and four of her children died during that same four-year nightmare. The Academy paid no attention whatsoever to Lost Loves, but gave a nomination to The Missing Picture. Go figure.