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In 1975, after the fall of Cambodia to the Khmer Rouge, Cambodian national Dith Pran, translator and journalistic partner of New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg, was plunged into the terror of Pol Pot's oppressive and brutal prison camps. In 1979, he escaped to Thailand and, with the help of his friend and colleague Schanberg, was brought to the United States and reunited with his family. Still grappling with guilt over not getting Dith out of Cambodia when he had the chance, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Schanberg poured the story of his experiences in Cambodia, and the terrible ordeal of Dith in the "killing fields" of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, into a soul-searching feature for the New York Times Magazine: "The Death and Life of Dith Pran."
Dith Pran's story is at the center of The Killing Fields (1984), the first major western film to confront the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian genocide. Sam Waterston stars as Sydney Schanberg and Dr. Haing S. Ngor, a fellow Cambodian survivor of Pol Pot's brutal regime, is Dith Pran. The film opens on 1973, as Dith tips Schanberg to the American bombing of a Cambodian village that the military wants to hush up, and then arranges passage to the village, skirting both American and Cambodian efforts to keep them out. The story jumps ahead two years to 1975, as the rebel Khmer Rouge marches on Phnom Penh and the American Embassy is pulling out. Schanberg arranges for Dith and his family to be evacuated with the Americans but Dith stays behind with Schanberg and the western journalists. It turns out to be a fateful sacrifice on Dith's part. When the rebel forces march on the city, Schanberg and a number of western journalists are captured and headed toward certain execution; they watch countless other prisoners summarily executed on what appears to be little more than a whim. Thanks to the tireless efforts of Dith, however, they are spared and join the exodus from the city, taking refuge in the French Embassy where they await passage home. When the Khmer Rouge orders that all Cambodians evacuate the embassy, Schanberg's fellow journalists attempt to forge foreign identity papers with the primitive tools left to them, but they are unable to save Dith from his "reeducation" in the work camps.
First time feature director Roland Joffe shoots the drama with an unforced realism lent a terrible grace by the handsome images and smooth, unobtrusive long takes of cinematographer Chris Menges, who keeps the camera panning and tracking the characters through almost every scene. It's a remarkably effective stylistic choice, keeping the camera centered on Dith and Schanberg and the other journalists while embracing the vivid reality of their surroundings, be it the bloody aftermath of a guerilla bombing in a busy city street or the nervous tension and desperation of western journalists holed up in a nearly-gutted, overcrowded embassy as young, undisciplined rebel soldiers surround the gated grounds. Within the formal style and beautifully composed frame, the eruption of chaos and violence feels even more threatening, especially in the film's third act as we follow Dith through the terrible reeducation camps of Pol Pot's bloody "Year Zero" ethnic cleansing campaign.
Pran's ordeal is directed with a blunt immediacy. "Here only the silent survive," he remarks in the letters to Schanberg that he composes in his head while he watches the young indoctrinated and the adults sacrificed in Pol Pot's answer to China's "Cultural Revolution." Joffe does not subtitle any of the Cambodian dialogue or any foreign language, for that matter. "I particularly didn't want to use subtitles," he explained in the commentary track he recorded for the DVD release of the film. "I just felt this needed to be an incomprehensible, extraordinary world, and it was incomprehensible to the people living in it too. Why was Pran left? Why didn't they kill him? He, to this day, doesn't know. And therefore it didn't matter to me what was said. It was the extraordinariness of the landscape, the extraordinariness of the world, the arbitrariness I wanted to catch."
Roland Joffe came out of Britain's National Theater, where in 1973 he became their youngest director, and went on to direct television productions before making his feature directorial debut with The Killing Fields. The script, by actor-turned-screenwriter Bruce Robinson, came to him from British producer David Puttnam (whose many previous productions include Chariots of Fire , Midnight Express  and Local Hero ), who wanted his opinion on the 300-page draft. Joffe told Puttnam that he thought it wasn't a war story but a love story between Dith and Schanberg. Puttnam liked his answer and, after talking to a number of directors, offered the project to Joffe. He, Puttnam and screenwriter Robinson proceeded to interview Schanberg and Dith as well as Cambodian refugees in the United States, Europe and Thailand, and they turned to Schanberg's private diary to enrich the screenplay. The Killing Fields was shot almost entirely on location in Thailand.
Sam Waterston, sporting a Massachusetts accent and a black beard, was cast as Schanberg, the intensely passionate and professional journalist whose coverage of Cambodia earned him numerous journalistic awards and accolades, including the Pulitzer Prize. He's contrasted, at least in style, by the slovenly appearance and impulsive manner of John Malkovich's performance as photographer Al Rockoff, a man who can leap from a sleepy hangover and start snapping pictures of a sudden catastrophe without batting an eye. Julian Sands was cast in his first major role as British photojournalist Jon Swain and esteemed South African playwright Athol Fugard brought a certain innate dignity to the role of Dr. Sundesval. Spalding Gray, who played the assistant to the American ambassador in Cambodia, transformed his experiences in Thailand (mostly off the set during his "down time" in the production) into the theatrical monologue Swimming to Cambodia , which he performed on stage and for Jonathan Demme's camera's in the feature film of his one-man show.
In the central role of Dith Pran is Dr. Haing S. Ngor, a Cambodian non-actor who brought his own life experience to the role. Ngor survived a similar horror as a doctor in Cambodia when the Khmer Rouge took over. He was, along with his fiance, imprisoned and tortured (she died from her ordeal) and he escaped to Thailand with his niece (his only surviving family member) in 1979. "This is a brave thing he did, agreeing to relive this," remarked Joffe as he recalled a scene where Dith watches a young girl, not even a teenager, rip out a tomato plant he has grown and stare him down with a look of animal ferocity. Playing the scene shook Ngor so much he fled the set. "In her flat, dead eyes," wrote New York Times reporter Samuel G. Freedman in a 1984 profile of the film, "the eyes of the thousands of children in the Khmer Rouge - Dr. Ngor saw again the horrors both he and Mr. Dith had actually endured." In the same article, Ngor remarked (in halting English): "'For me, movie not different. I have enough experience in Communist times. I put emotion into the movie. We have a lot of scenes like in Khmer Rouge time. Everything the same.'' Joffe remembers that "Haing wanted the violence to be even stronger."
The Killing Fields earned seven Academy Award® nominations and won three, for Ngor's performance in the "Best Supporting Actor" category (though his time on screen should have qualified him for the "Best Actor" competition), Chris Menges' stunning cinematography and Jim Clark's restrained film editing. Ngor (who also won a Golden Globe and a British Academy Award for his performance) dedicated his Oscar® to his family. He acted in a few more films before he was murdered in 1996, the victim of a robbery by street gang members near his home in Los Angeles.
The real Dith Pran worked as a celebrated photographer for the New York Times beginning in 1980. He also spoke out about the Cambodian genocide and, after the film came out, was joined by Dr. Haing S. Ngor in his efforts to bring attention to the plight of Cambodia and its people. He died of pancreatic cancer in 2008 at the age of 65. With him throughout his final days were his ex-wife (though divorced, she returned to care for him through his illness) and his good friend, Sydney Schanberg.
Producer: David Puttnam
Director: Roland Joffe
Screenplay: Bruce Robinson
Cinematography: Chris Menges
Art Direction: Roger Murray-Leach, Steve Spence
Music: Mike Oldfield
Film Editing: Jim Clark
Cast: Sam Waterston (Sydney Schanberg), Dr. Haing S. Ngor (Dith Pran), John Malkovich (Alan 'Al' Rockoff), Julian Sands (Jon Swain), Craig T. Nelson (Major Reeves), Spalding Gray (United States consul), Bill Paterson (Dr. MacEntire), Athol Fugard (Dr. Sundesval)
by Sean Axmaker