Sunday, March 30, 2008

Dith Pran, 1942 - 2008

The New York Times reports this morning that Dith Pran, survivor of the Pol Pot regime and subject of the 1984 Roland Joffe film The Killing Fields, passed away today in New Brunswick, New Jersey after succumbing to pancreatic cancer. He was 65. The Killing Fields, a term coined by Pran, was based on the short book The Death and Life of Dith Pran (1985) by New York Times foreign correspondent Sydney Schanberg, who covered the political and military turmoil in Cambodia (including the rise of the Khmer Rouge) during the height of America's involvement in neighboring Vietnam. Pran, a journalist himself, had been an indispensable part of Schanberg's Pulitzer-Prize winning reports, serving not only as Schanberg's interpreter but also as his guide through the war-torn country. Pran's personal and professional loyalty to Schanberg (as well as his desire to have Cambodia's story told to the outside world) forced him to stay in Cambodia, even as the Khmer Rouge began its systematic imprisonment and execution of all educated and Westernized nationals, and even as Pran had evacuated his own family. The two men's working partnership and deep friendship, along with Pran's eventual capture by the Khmer Rouge and Schanberg's expulsion (along with the rest of the world press) from Cambodia, is the essential story of The Killing Fields.

Here is the trailer for the film, which stars Sam Waterston as Schanberg and Dr. Haing S Ngor (who won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor) as Pran:

While compelling throughout, The Killing Fields is really marked by its incredibly touching final scene, where Pran and Schanberg are finally reunited in a Red Cross refugee camp after a four-and-a-half year separation. Pran had spent the separation imprisoned in a Cambodian labor camp (fighting a daily battle with malnutrition and torture), while Schanberg had been perhaps imprisoned in a different way, back in New York, still reporting on Cambodia and still searching for any word of Pran while wrestling with intense guilt over the fact that he had kept Pran in Cambodia to assist in reporting, even when it was clear that Pran should have evacuated with his family when he had had the chance.

It is cheap to show just the last scene, but here it is anyway. Joffe's song choice for the scene somehow works, even though it shouldn't. First, it violates the rule (which I just made up) that iconic Beatles songs (including iconic post-Beatles Lennon or McCartney songs) should not be used in film or even personal mixes (as they are too iconic to the point of distracting from the film or the mix). And second, the utopian nature of this song in particular seems just too direct and unsubtle given the political story. Somehow, however, it all works--and this scene, with this music, gets me every time. (One technique that works particularly well is the way the camera pivots to track Pran's face as he recognizes his old friend after so long, right after the music has moved from tinny mono to full stereo.) The result is a reunion that is searing:

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