Beyond the Killing Fields: 6 Cambodian Survivors
* * * * *Haing Ngor, Someth May, Tedda Butt Mam, Chanrithy Him, Dith Pran and Sydney Schanberg.
* * * * *Among Asiaphiles it is the most heartrending tragedy in the region's modern history. For those who lived it, it will be a waking nightmare for the rest of their lives. For the movie-going public, it's simply called: The Killing Fields, and the images from the movie are haunting enough that most without an active interest in this area want to hear no more of it. But amid the tragedy are also heroism, inspiration and beauty -- yes, sickening, horrifying but undeniable beauty. And fascination, the gnawing, obsessive and desperate search for lasting lessons. Who among us doesn't want to make sense out of senselessness? Who with a heart wouldn't want to know WHY? By now the events and the film which retells them are too well known to need retelling here. But a movie is just that: a set of two dimensional images projected on a screen. Director Roland Joffe even admits (in his feature length comentary recorded for the DVD edition of the movie) that: "Film isn't really there to explain". He and the rest of the cast want you to FEEL, which you certainly will from the moment the first silent, lonely white credit rolls on-screen till long after you leave the theater. But what if that's not enough? Fortunately, a surprising number of survivors of the Khumer Rouge regime have been willing to relive the full horror by writing autobiographies which take us from Phnon Penh's days of determined innocence through the ghastly four year reign of terror and out the other side to settlement in the United States and the long and at times confused and painful road to recovery. Perhaps the best of these chronicles is by the man who won an Oscar for his portrayal of Dith Pran in the film: Dr. Haing Ngor, who was ironically to be gunned down in front of his L.A. apartment shortly after its publication. Ngor's narrative is easily the most objective and historically informative -- almost as if, having been denied the right to be an intellectual under the KR regime, he's making up for it in spades now. Most interesting of all in this account (apart from a look at the filming and Oscar celebrations) are Ngor's characterization of his countrymen, his insights on what caused the calamity and his trenchant and wise assessment that "Sad to say, the country ultimately responsible for the destruction of Cambodia is Cambodia itself". Readers will also appreciate Ngor's warnings not to read certain sections for those who can't stomache detailed descriptions of violence and torture. Another very illuminating and moving survival tale comes with a title taken from KR death threats: To Destroy You Is No Loss, by Teeda Butt Mam. Butt Mam was relatively lucky in the number of family members who survived with her, but just like Ngor, they suffered horribly on the overland trek to freedom in Thailand. Like all of our writers, her family were "New People" -- soft, well to do residents of the capital who had their lives turned upside down and used every ounce of wit and ingenuity to survive. She and her family adapted remarkably well to the West, and there's not so much torture in her report. The other woman on our list, Chanrithy Him, was not so lucky. Starvation hits her family, and she still has nightmares long after her arrival in Oregon, where she works in the mental health sector helping her countrymen. She is still a child in 1975, and her subtitle: "Growing up under the Khmer Rouge" is a clear warning of how difficult a read this will be. The title itself is more interesting: "When Broken Glass Floats" is a metaphor for how evil may take the upper hand at first, but will ultimately sink just as will broken glass when it becomes waterlogged. Him explains that a kind of fruit common in Cambodia (representing the good, innocent civilians) goes under at first, but ultimately triumphs. While perhaps weighted down too much for the kind of detatched reflection of Ngor and Butt Mam, Him still brims with love and understanding, and her consistent warmth makes reading the attrocities she recounts just barely possible. Most culturally illuminating of all in terms of the traditional Cambodian way of life (and in many ways most likeable of the lot), Someth May simply calls himself a "Cambodian Witness. He is also the most openly bitter, however, and his story ends too soon, just as you are settling into his new life with him in Washington DC. Indirectly here it's possible to sense the truth behind some of Haing Ngor's statements about the Achille's Heel of the Cambodian people, though May is just as deserving of our admiration and compassion as the rest. Perhaps the fact that he doesn't bother to warn us before dropping some barbarous anecdote is what makes this the hardest of these books to read. Coupled with the fact that May COULD widen his political and historical vision as Ngor did but chooses not to (he was on his way to becoming a doctor when Phnon Penh fell) diminishes his effort somewhat, though only a little. Certainly anyone wanting to see the best of prerevolutionary Cambodian customs will find no better voice. Hard as this work may be to find, it is certainly worth the effort. And what of Dith Pran and Sydney Schanberg themselves? Though their basic story is told in The Killing Fields, Schanberg cannot resist adding a slim, strangely titled book to his clippings from the period -- an overall very interesting and welcome look behind the screen at what really happened. It's not clear why it's called "The Death and Life of Dith Pran" since Pran certainly doesn't die in its pages. How Schanberg, Pran and all the other Western journalists really felt and what they did during the period the movie covers make a brilliant and essential counterpoint to the film. Indeed, perhaps the main reason to read it is that then you will know where artistic lisence was taken. Like Someth May's account, you are left with the feeling of unfinished business, though this is not Schanberg's fault, but rather the nature of the story itself. Schanberg's love and pity for Cambodia and her people shines right through, and if you see the film first, read the four other books, then finish with this one, it is possible to feel a sense of uneasy closure. Be sure to get the DVD version of the film and watch twice, once with the sound set to Roland Joffe's comentary. Better yet, buy the DVD as well as Ngor and Butt Mam's books (from a used bookstore). The rest are easily enough found at your local library except for Cambodian Witness, which can be had through interlibrary loan if yours doesn't have it. What are the themes which emerge after you've waded through all this stuff? Where's the beauty and inspiration amid all the horror? To avoid being swaped by despair, look for the common traits that seem to help all these people survive, like love of spouses, family and friends. Look past the deliberate sadism and the venality of successive Cambodian regimes to the beauty and dignity of the individuals who find work and a measure of peace in their new lives and notice that all of them hold dear an image of Cambodia before its holocost, an unspoilt, bucollic image of a proud civilization at peace, raising its children in a profoundly religious atmosphere. And above all, remember: None of these authors has completely given in to despair or cynacism (though sometimes it seems May comes close). Each in his or her own way writes out of love, wanting us to move beyond the horror, beyond the terror -- eyond the killing fields. Out of all the madness, one thing is certain: If the Cambodian people as a whole are nothing else, they are rugged survivors, practical and profoundly spiritual at the same time, traumatized by the past, but also in touch with its splendor. What they want for their future is peace, prosperity and a safe place to raise respectful, well mannered children who will grow up into a prouder heritage than their parents were lucky enough to bequeath them. When all is said and done, this is a message of hope, and uplifting example for us all. Haing Ngor is right when he calls his story A Cambodian Odyssey. Share the odesey if you dare -- and share in the love its conclusion will bring you.
* * * * *Reading List Butt Mam, Teeda (with Joan D. Criddle): To Destroy You is No Loss, the odesey of a Cambodian Family. The Atlantic Monthly Press, New York. 1987//ISBN: 0-87113-116-1 Him, Chanrithy: When Broken Glass Floats, growing up under the Khmer Rouge. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, London. 2000//ISBN: 0-393-04883-2 Ngor, Haing: (with Roger Warner): A Cambodian Odyssey. Macmillian Publishing Company, New York. 1987//ISBN: 0-02-589330-0 May, Someth (Intro: James Fenton): Cambodian Witness, the autobiography of Someth May. Random House, New York. 1986//ISBN: 0-394-54804-3 Schanberg, Sydney: The Death and Life of Dith Pran. Elisabeth Sifton Books (Viking), New York. 1980, 1985//ISBN: 0-670-80857-1
* * * * *
Published on 11/23/02