Film Portrayals of the Cambodian Genocide:
The Killing Fields
and Swimming to Cambodia

by Lindsey Foster

December 6, 2005

web project for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Holocaust

UC Santa Barbara, Fall 2005
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Growing up in the United States, I could not imagine a world where you could be punished for your intelligence. On April 17, 1975 the fall of Phnom Penh gave way to the Khmer Rouge, which called itself Democratic Kampuchea. However, problems in Cambodia began many years before. Pol Pot assumed power in 1974; and the "Year Zero" began. The opening of the Killing Fields beings with a voice over of Sydney Schanberg, describing Cambodia, a paradise, as a victim of war and how this seemingly "neutral" place became involved in the Vietnam War. (Kuhn, The Killing Fields) The Killing Fields, an emotionally affecting portrayal of the relationships between a cast of real-life characters and the unwavering United States as an ineffective presence in Cambodia. Amid the ruthless massacre committed by the Khmer Rouge The Killing Fields puts a human face on both sides of the conflict in Southeast Asia.

Two excellent films, The Killing Fields and Swimming to Cambodia, offer insight to the massive genocide that took place under the Khmer Rouge. Despite the ways in which both films have been cast, they have been acclaimed for their cinematic and historical value over time. The Killing Films portrays the lives of three American journalists as well as a trusted interpreter, Dith Pran and gives an account of the horrifying fall of the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh under the tyranny of the Khmer Rouge, depicted through the eyes of New York Times reporters and photojournalists, most notably Sydney Schanberg and his Cambodian protégé Dith Pran. Swimming to Cambodia essentially tells about Spaulding Gray’s experiences as an actor in Roland Joffe’s film, The Killing Fields. The film features Gray in a small but pivotal role as an assistant to the U.S. Ambassador in Cambodia. Although these films are both depicted in vastly different ways one is a historical film, while the other is a dramatic monologue. Both show dramatic insight to the reporters’ understandings of the term ‘genocide’ and how they used this experience to expose this information to the rest of the world.

Though The Killing Fields begins with the point of view of the Schanberg character, the main part of the film belongs to Dith Pran. In the later half of the film we follow Pran and his experiences as he "sees his country turned into an insane parody of a one-party state, ruled by the Khmer Rouge with instant violence and a savage intolerance for any reminders of the French and American presence of the colonial era" (Ebert, The Killing Fields). I think that in this film the most touching points are the scenes that omit Pran’s personal inner monologues. While, I find these monologues helpful in gaining insight to the thoughts that might be going through a prisoner of wars experiences, I find that seeing those experiences had more impact on me. The Cambodian genocide is highly unknown to many people.

Pran spent four years in the Khmer rouge, and we see how he had to hide much of who he was. This genocide differed from the Holocaust as we see that people were killed based off their knowledge. "He [Pran] and millions of other Cambodians suffered terrible conditions, including long hard hours of physical labor, hunger, malnutrition, and constant surveillance under murderous Khmer Rouge" (Kuhn, The Killing Fields). There is a scene where we see Pran so desperate to live, that he results to drinking blood from a cow. He is caught and tied to a tree and left to die. He is only saved when a boy who remembers him from the Airport Road recognizes him. There Pran gave the boy a Mercedes emblem that was enough to save his life (Kuhn, "The Killing Fields," scene log). Cambodians were re-educated, told that this was "Year Zero," and that everything they had known before this "pre-Revolution" had to be erased. In this film there is a specific scene where a child leads a man to death after she accuses him of not working hard enough since his hands were not abraded enough. During this commotion, Pran plans an escape. He hides in the water and waits for the camp to pack up and leave.

Not too long afterwards, Pran escapes and the following scene shows us the horrible truth of the "killing fields". Pran discovers the mass graves of the Cambodians. This scene is especially significant as it reveals the horror behind the very name of the film. "Under Khmer Rouge rule, it is estimated that anywhere from one to three million Cambodians perished.  Across the country, there exist many mass graves, or "killing fields," laden with the bones of thousands of Cambodians who died during this time" (Kuhn, "The Killing Fields," history). This kind of a scene shows the audience how much of Cambodia is so undeveloped that something like these graves could actually happen.

Although Pran successfully escapes, he runs into more problems. Another Khmer Rouge group captures him, and takes him as a servant. His only chances of survival were his ability to hide his knowledge of French or English, which he is indeed asked. However, as the film continues he is caught listening to an English newscast. "The leader is actually relieved that Pran speaks English, because he can entrust his son to Pran and admit that he fears for his life (a mutiny) without any other KR members understanding him" (Kuhn, "The Killing Fields," scene log). This scene shows us that no one is safe in this horrific event. Members of the Khmer Rouge eventually kill the leader. When this occurs Pran, the child of the leader, and many other men are able to escape, while the Khmer Rouge is busy fighting the Vietnamese. Although Pran is able to survive, he suffers the loss of the child as the result of hidden mines. Nowhere is safe anymore. Pran makes it through the forest to a village where he finds refuge working with the Red Cross.

The escape of Pran and his eventual survival were not likely during turbulent times like these. As reviewer Robert Ebert notes, "In a more conventional film, he would, of course, have really disappeared, and we would have followed the point of view of the Schanberg character". Yet, the film is quite a masterpiece at depicting true Asian landscape. Some of the best moments in the film show us the human sides of desperation, feelings, trust, loyalty and the inner conversations. However, as I found out in the end, an actual Cambodian refugee to played the part of Pran. This casting offers a sincere and convincing depiction of the true emotions and feelings of someone undergoing these horrific experiences.

While the casting of Pran by an actual Cambodian refugee is compelling to the story plot, I find that Gray’s presence in The Killing Fields is very important to complement his work, Swimming to Cambodia. Swimming to Cambodia is essentially about the experiences of Gray as an actor in The Killing Fields. His role in The Killing Fields, though small, gave him the chance of utilizing his time in Thailand while the filming was going on. "He seems to have used this time to investigate not only the fleshpots of Bangkok, but also the untold story of the genocide that was practiced by the fanatic Khmer Rouge on their Cambodian countrymen" (Ebert, Swimming to Cambodia). Interspersed with heavier stuff, gray describes his experiences with descriptions of marijuana binges, sex shows in the bordellos of Bangkok, as well as his accounts in great detail of all his findings, from the infamous "banana show" in a local nightclub to the disappearance of millions of Cambodians in one of the greatest mass murders in modern history. In his traumatic detailing of the genocide in Cambodia that took some two million lives during the Khmer Rouge, Gray punctuates his story with numerous anecdotes such as encountering a sexually experimental sailor on a train journey, a description of a journalist's ego, and his own neurotic fear of sharks, remembered only when he is swimming in an uncharted sea.

This film, perhaps one of the simplest movie sets ever designed situates Gray in an astonishingly vivid picture of what really happened in Cambodia. Throughout this 85 minute monologue he sits at a wooden table, furnished only with a microphone, a glass of water, pointing device, and a small spiral notebook, as well as the display of two flags hanging behind him on both sides, one of southeast Asia, the other of Cambodia. The way in which Gray’s narrative moves along captures an audience's attention as he motors from one topic to the next, transporting the audience with his mystical abilities of telekinesis from his apartment in New York to the idyllic beaches of Phuket, punctuated with comedic punch lines delivered straight into the eye of the camera. Therefore, when his ‘Perfect Moment’ finally arrives, you are prepared to be right there in the moment with him.

When they were released, both films were critically acclaimed. They offer viewers insight to the Cambodian genocide through two very different views. I think that the coupling of these two films can greatly enhance the knowledge of people hoping to seek a better understanding of genocides in the twentieth century. While these films do not go into depth over the term ‘genocide,’ they expose it in their own ways. The haunting image of Pran muddling through the remains of the bodies will haunt anyone who views it. In spite of this there have been numerous criticisms of Gray’s comical anecdotes pertaining specifically to his descriptions of some strip shows. He has been criticized for exploiting the genocide in Cambodia for his own exaggeration. This can be seen as a serious charge, particularly since most of Gray’s findings are based on word of mouth. Of course, it can be seen that Swimming to Cambodia is, on some level, self-exaggeration, but it is worth making note that in part, The Killing Fields was inspired by the deaths of millions of the people Gray encountered.

One of the most important distinguishing factors of this genocide versus the Jewish Holocaust is that the Cambodian genocide dealt with the mass extermination of millions of people from the educated classes. Just looking intelligent could have killed you, or in Pran’s experience, acting as if you are unintelligent could save your life. Then it is also important to ask the question, aren’t literally all possible historical subjects exploited whenever they are turned into fiction? In all fiction movies, no matter whether based on true life or not, the film directors always has their spin to make the film into a Hollywood hit. In almost all war movies, for example, the suffering and deaths of untold victims and turn them into a setting for a fiction story at the center of a few romanticized characters. Yet, what film is without criticisms? Despite the criticisms that Gray faced in his films, it brings to life the fact that every person was involved in this genocide somehow. These people were not being killed because of their beliefs, but based on what they know [their background]. I believe it was said best by Pran inThe Killing Fields: "only the silent survive," namely that the most deadly factor is within you--your own intelligence.

About the Author (back to top)

Lindsey Foster
I am a senior history major graduating this June 2006. I have always been interested in studying the Nazi era. It has always been something that interested me because of the unbelievable things that occurred during the time that Hitler was in power. I have learned more about the Holocaust in these past 10 months than I have in previous years. I think that one of the main reasons for this is because we have studied so many different perspectives of this event. In particular, I have been able to relate some of the issues to many of my other classes as well as discuss some of the issues with fellow students and friends. This class also gave me the opportunity to meet new people and work with other students when we had to create a group project on a topic that related to the course. This project forced me into studying different areas of the world I probably would not have found on my own. It really was an experience that has opened my eyes to how little I know on issues outside the US. The topic our group was assigned was genocide. We chose to study the modern genocide in Cambodia. This was an event I didn’t even know about. I had no idea about the atrocities that have occurred, in part because of the US involvement. In fact, there were many times when we met as a group that I often joked a bit about being so uninformed about issues in the world. However, I think this is a severe problem, that I hope to try and correct in the future. I enjoyed working on this project because it has helped me to expand my thoughts and open my mind to issues outside the US. Within this project I evaluated two films that were a result of this mass genocide. It was something that I really had to research. I was so unfamiliar with this topic and shocked to see the harsh realities behind it. I find it unbelievable that so many people are not educated on issues like this. I think that it is important to know about what is going on in all parts of the world as this project has helped me to understand.

prepared for web by Harold Marcuse on12/6/05; last updated: 12/14/05
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