RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Over the years, a lot of books and movies have been inspired by the genocide in Cambodia in the 1970s at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, most famously, the 1984 Oscar-winning "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 as a boy. Pat Dowell has his story.

PAT DOWELL, BYLINE: Rithy 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 they all tell the same story.

RITHY PANH: I make only one film, 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. I had to film my story.

DOWELL: Until "The Missing Picture," Panh has never told his own story on film, how he survived after the Khmer Rouge Communist Party came to power in 1975. It was the day before Panh's 13th birthday. The Khmer Rouge bombed and burned banks, theaters, libraries. Suddenly, Panh and his family and millions more were ordered out of the cities and into the countryside to do manual labor, says journalist Elizabeth Becker, who's reported on Cambodia for 40 years.

ELIZABETH BECKER: "Missing Picture," it's totally accurate that it came out of the blue. Soldiers showed up, and people were thrown out of their houses, patients out of the hospitals. The scenes were heartbreaking.

DOWELL: Nearly two million Cambodians died in the next four years, almost a quarter of the country's population. They starved in forced work camps. Whole families were tortured and executed. Rithy 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. So, the director decided to restage the reality he experienced with small clay figurines posed in meticulous miniature scenes, recreating his world down to tiny paper lilies and rats.

PANH: I think that to tell this story, it's good to work with your hand, with your heart, with clay, with water, with the sun to dry it, to work with the element of life. And these figurines represent those soul of those people who died.

DOWELL: In the film, we see hands whittling down the little clay figures. As food rations dwindle, one figure has its hands raised to its cheeks in a wail of distress. But Panh also stages his dreams and fantasies and strategies for survival, spoken by a narrator who stands in for the boy Rithy Panh was.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE MISSING PICTURE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Rithy Panh) To hang on, you must hide within yourself a strength, a memory, an idea that no one can take from you, for a picture can be stolen, a thought cannot.

DOWELL: The words are Panh's, crafted by a screenwriter. The filmmaker works with a group of collaborators. He says he struggled to make "The Missing Picture," until he learned that his assistant could sculpt figurines of clay. Another longtime collaborator is musician Marc Marder. He's scored 18 of Panh's films. On "The Missing Picture," he says he too was guided by the clay figurines.

MARC MARDER: I think the music for Rithy's films has to be like these clay figurines in fact. It's never an illustrative music. But this score, as in all of Rithy's films, I think I'm trying to make some music as soul, of the people who are not there.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DOWELL: Marder combined and electronically manipulated sound, including Khmer Rouge rally songs, into almost unrecognizable forms.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DOWELL: But he plays one of the film's meditative themes on acoustic double-bass.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DOWELL: Journalist Elizabeth Becker says "The Missing Picture" shows the genocide as a poet and artist would, rather than a prosecutor presenting a case. She also says Rithy Panh is more than a filmmaker.

BECKER: He co-founded the Bophana Center, which has become the national archive to recover and retain the visual images of Cambodia that were all destroyed. So, he goes all over the world to collect photos and films. And he also has started film festivals and is training a whole new core of filmmakers in Cambodia. So, he walks the walk.

DOWELL: Despite Rithy Panh's labors to retrieve Cambodia's memories, the filmmaker says he has great respect for forgetting.

PANH: I like people who have the capacity to forget. I think forgetting is good. But sometimes I cannot. I continue to talk with those who died every night, every day. Sometime I see them. So, I have deal with that, I have to deal with this pain, with this debt. And in other way, I have to learn to live again.

DOWELL: This conflict between memory and forgetfulness is at the core of his films as well as his life. Rithy Panh says he'll continue searching his country's history for the truth - the still-missing pictures. His next project is set during the French colonial occupation of Cambodia. For NPR News, this is Pat Dowell.

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