Absent appropriate archival footage, Cambodian-born documentary filmmaker Rithy Panh tells the harrowing and tragic story of his family’s death during the 1970s Pol Pot regime using clay figurines.

Cannes winner artfully shapes terrifying true story.

ADELAIDE FILM FESTIVAL: What recourse is available for the documentary filmmaker when footage of his or her subject doesn’t exist? Or the film is located, but is, tragically, disintegrating in rusted cans and thus unusable? Finally, what if the footage is readily available, but was photographed by minions under the control of a reviled despot whose large-scale acts of genocide are the subject of the film itself?

a brutal story

This is precisely the situation in which France-based, Cambodian-born filmmaker Rithy Panh found himself during the preparation of his remarkable, Un Certain Regard-winning documentary The Missing Picture. The pre-eminent recorder and interpreter of Cambodia under the Communist dictatorship of Pol Pot from 1975 to 1997, his films include the probing and well-received Rice People (1994), S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2003) and Duch, Master of the Forges of Hell (2012).

These, as well as his other films, focus on various facets of the Khmer Rouge regime, which focused on a forced social engineering that saw average Cambodians relocated to camps and stripped of their individuality. During this time, it is estimated 25 percent of the population died as a result of these draconian policies.

The director has been open in the past about the fate of his parents and sisters, all of whom died from starvation and/or exhaustion after being forcibly taken from their house in 1975 and sent to one such camp. For The Missing Picture, he decided to confront their stories head on. Yet as no footage of them apparently exists, and the period newsreels and documentaries to which he does have access are tainted by the hideous ideologies of the regime that commissioned them, he was faced with a dilemma increasingly common to non-fiction filmmakers.

As he told IndieWire during last September’s Toronto International Film Festival, the idea to use carved and painted clay figurines as stand-ins for his friends and family came to him in a rather roundabout way: 'It started out as a very personal attempt to give shape to my own memories," he said. 'We were all sent away from my house in 1975. And when I went back to look for my house, it of course no longer existed. Today, it’s a karaoke parlour. Really just for my own benefit, I asked a guy from my crew to make a rough model for me. I had no idea he was a sculptor. I just asked him to make me a simple rough model out of wood, but he immediately said no, he wanted to use clay. And you know, it worked out well, because clay is also earth. You make it with water, you dry it with the sun, not too little, not too much, you work with your hands, and then little by little, you see something form. I guess this is how cinema works, you follow one idea to another, getting closer and closer to finding the story you want to tell."

And a brutal story it is. With his poignant, insightful narration read in French by Randal Douc, Panh tells of his vibrant life before 1975 and increasingly grim existence after that. He describes his father’s self-imposed death by starvation after refusing to eat the 'animal food" they were given as 'an act of resistance," and his three siblings subsequent deaths with quiet dignity.

Panh’s figurine, as painted by that crew member, sculptor Sarith Mang, wears a brightly coloured spotted shirt. Taken together, the models represent the 'missing pictures" of Panh’s memories and the tragic losses of his youth. As he told IndieWire, 'these aren’t just figurines, they are something else, they have a soul."

Tying these themes together with his life’s work—he studied carpentry before being given a video camera by a friend and subsequently discovering his true calling—near the end of the narration Panh writes 'There is no truth, only cinema—the revolution is cinema."

Viewers are advised to stay for the closing credits, during which still photographs reveal the behind-the-scenes labours involved in creating the figurines and dioramas.