1984 saw the first showing of The Killing Fields, a disturbing film, directed by Roland Joffé and produced by David Puttnum1. The film told the true tale of a New York Times reporter Sydney Shanberg (played by Sam Waterston) and his Cambodian assistant Dith Pran (played by a newcomer to the film industry - Dr Haing S Ngor).
Cambodia in the 1970s
In 1975, after five years of civil war in Cambodia, the US-backed, right wing Lon Nol government was overthrown by communist guerilla forces, known as the Khmer Rouge. As the guerrillas entered the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, they were welcomed as saviours and there was much jubilation at the thought of peace being finally restored to the war-torn country.
Little did the population of Cambodia know, but this was to be the start of one of the greatest human catastrophes and acts of barbarity ever to be seen by the modern world.
Just two days after the takeover of Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge started a forced evacuation of all major cities. The entire population of the capital was told that the city was under imminent threat of air attack by US B52 bombers and they should leave immediately.
The cities became ghost towns and the entire population of the country was moved into the countryside, forming what would effectively become an army of slaves, forced into working on the land. Personal property was made illegal, everyone was forced into the black pyjamas normally worn by Cambodian peasants and all talk about pre-revolutionary Cambodia was punishable by execution.
The Khmer Rouge organisation ruthlessly searched out and killed not only former members of the Lon Nol government, but anyone with an intellectual background - doctors, lawyers, students, reporters, etc. None were spared. As well as the systematic murder of the intellectual classes, the regime enforced by the Khmer Rouge leadership (forced labour, malnutrition, complete lack of medical facilities, etc.) caused the deaths of millions. Various estimates of the number of casualties during the four-year reign of terror put the death toll somewhere between 1.3 and 2 million people. Up to 1/3 of the country's entire population was to die in the killing fields of Cambodia.
The plot of the film itself follows the true story of Dith Pran, the assistant of New York Times foreign correspondent Sydney Shanberg, from the end of the civil war and the evacuation of his wife and children to the United States just prior to the fall of Phnom Penh. Covering the 'siege' of the French Embassy in Phnom Penh, through to his eventual capture by the Khmer Rouge the film finally depicts his escape across the Thai-Kampuchea2 border in 1979.
This harrowing film was nominated for seven Oscars, and won two, one of which, the Oscar for 'Best Supporting Actor', was awarded to Dr Haing S Ngor for his portrayal of Dith Pran.
This Oscar was all the more astonishing when one considers the fact that Haing was not a trained actor; in fact, he was an escapee of the Cambodian revolution himself, and his story is even more harrowing and difficult to understand than that of the character he played.
Dr Haing S Ngor - Biography
Born on the 22 March, 1950, Ngor Haing3 had a fairly ordinary childhood and youth. He attended medical school and eventually ended up with his own practice, specialising in the fields of obstetrics and gynecology. A reasonably successful, but one might say, uneventful life.
During his medical student days he fell in love - his fiancée was training to be a teacher at the time. In 1975, the Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh and Haing was forced, along with millions of others, to flee the city. He was separated from his wife for a while and ended up a slave labourer in the countryside not far from where his parents had grown up.
During this period he was forced to conceal his education - as doctors were systematically killed by the Khmer Rouge. He lived under the guise of a simple taxi driver, even going without his spectacles, as these were seen to be 'intellectual' by many of the Khmer Rouge guerrillas.
During his captivity, Haing was frequently subjected to imprisonment and beatings. At one time, after having been caught trying to forage for food to supplement the meagre rations allocated to his family, Haing was crucified over a low fire and had one of his fingers chopped off.
The worst torture was yet to come. Haing, a doctor and obstetrician, was forced to look on helplessly as his wife died during premature labour following a beating received from Khmer Rouge soldiers.
During the four years of his captivity, Haing watched as his wife, father and most of his family died at the hands of this brutal regime. Finally, in 1979, he was 'liberated' by North Vietnamese forces. The change in rulers in Cambodia did little to improve the plight of the slave labourers. Finally, Haing escaped over the border into neighbouring Thailand, arriving in the US in 1980.
In the USA
Haing was unable to use his qualifications in the US as they were not recognised by American Medical Authorities, however, he was approached by Roland Joffé to play the part of Dith Pran in a film adaptation of Sydney Shanberg's book, The Death and Life of Dith Pran. This film was to win him an Oscar and open many doors in the world of films. He was to co-star in several other Hollywood films over the next few years, but never forgot his roots.
Much of his income was spent championing the cause of Cambodian refugees and attempting to help the inhabitants of his former homeland. In 1991, he founded the Haing S Ngor Foundation for this express purpose. The Foundation set up a sawmill and a school within Cambodia itself and Haing found himself spending more and more of his time and money in Cambodia, shunning the bright lights of Hollywood.
On the 25 February, 1996, Dr Haing S Ngor was gunned down in front of the Chinatown apartment he used in Los Angeles. Just two days later, three 19-year-old boys, members of a local gang, were arrested and charged with the murder, which was apparently a simple robbery gone wrong. Haing was shot after refusing to hand over a locket, holding a photo of his late wife.
A wasted life? Not if you take the words of Haing himself. In an interview with the New York Times on the subject of The Killing Fields, Haing is quoted as having said:
If I die from now on, OK! This film will go on for a hundred years.
- Dr Haing S Ngor - 1950-1996