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‘The Missing Picture’: Cambodia’s terrible history told in clay

The hand-carved figures “The Missing Picture” stbefore emblem Pol Pot’s Democratic Kampuchea.  |  STRAND RELEASING

The hand-carved figures of “The Missing Picture” stand before the emblem of Pol Pot’s Democratic Kampuchea. | STRAND RELEASING

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Strand Releasing presents a film written and directed by Rithy Panh. In French with English subtitles. Running time: 92 minutes. No MPAA rating. Opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre.

Updated: April 15, 2014 6:04AM

‘The Missing Picture” is a wrenching yet tender memoir by Rithy Panh about life and death in the time of Pol Pot. Nominated for an Oscar as best foreign language film, this first entry from Cambodia recreates Panh’s teenage years under a tyrant.

From 1975 to 1979, the self-proclaimed Brother Number One tortured, executed, starved and worked to death nearly 2 million countrymen in what he called Democratic Kampuchea. The orphaned Panh found refuge in Thailand and later learned filmmaking in Paris, where three decades earlier Pol Pot had studied radio electronics and Stalin.

Since his 1990 return to Cambodia, Panh has made several documentaries about other survivors and tormentors. “S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine” (2003) observed an imprisoned painter accosting his former keepers. Two years later Panh co-founded an archive to preserve old Cambodian cinema and oral testimony about the Pol Pot era.

“The Missing Picture,” partly based in Panh’s 2012 book “The Elimination,” uses painted hand-carved figurines to stage incidents from his memory that are missing from black-and-white propaganda footage from that period.

The two styles merge when we see his little clay people attend an outdoor screening of an anti-colonial film. Panh inserts actual clips within the clay screen.

Color shots of decaying celluloid in rusty cans evoke a fading past. ”I spent my childhood in film studios with a director neighbor,” reveals the narrator. “That world ended.” The Khmer Rouge relocated city people to work camps in the country. The only possession allowed was a spoon. Eyeglasses were suspect. The educated class faced “re-education” or “elimination.”

Narration credited to French novelist Christophe Bataille is voiced by three different actors in the film’s various French, English and Cambodian versions.

Nor do Panh’s hands sculpt the miniatures populating his dioramas. Yet his eye for recall is indelibly his own.

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