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This photo was part of an exhibition titled "Cambodia Witness" by David Hawk in May 1983 at the Russell Senate. Actor Haing Ngor is third from left; Dith Pran is on the far left.
This photo was part of an exhibition titled "Cambodia Witness" by David Hawk in May 1983 at the Russell Senate. Actor Haing Ngor is third from left; Dith Pran is on the far left. DC-CAM

Documentary on "The Killing Fields" star set for the screen

A new film will explore the strange life of The Killing Fields star Haing Ngor. Poppy McPherson reports.

When he accepted his Academy Award for The Killing Fields in 1985, actor and Khmer Rouge survivor Haing Ngor said: “This is unbelievable, but so is my whole life.”

Now, nearly three decades later, a documentary film will bring that strange and sad story to the screen.

Directed by Chinese-American filmmaker Arthur Dong, The Killing Fields of Dr Haing S. Ngor is expected to be released next autumn.

The story will follow Ngor, who lived through the Cambodian holocaust to star as New York Times stringer Dith Pran in The Killing Fields and campaign to bring Khmer Rouge leaders to justice, only to be shot and killed on a Chinatown street in Los Angeles in 1996.

While investigators found the murder to be a gang-related robbery, conspiracy theories abound about his death, fuelled by the claim by former S-21 prison chief, Kaing Guek Eav, or Duch, that Pol Pot ordered his murder.

A civil party witness at the Khmer Rouge tribunal bowed out of the trial in April this year, saying Ngor “once talked about the Khmer Rouge and you know what happened to him”.

The Killing Fields brought the story of Dith Pran and the Khmer Rouge to a global audience, while Ngor told his own story in his autobiography, Survival in the Killing Fields of Cambodia.

The book shows Cambodia’s descent into the madness of the communist regime through the eyes of Ngor, a qualified doctor who is forced to watch his wife die in childbirth, unable to use his life-saving skills for fear of being exposed as an intellectual.

Animation will bring some of the scenes to life in the upcoming film adaptation. On the website, images show black and white drawings produced by a Japanese artist.

This will be the second film in as many years to address the Khmer Rouge horrors through unconventional film methods, after Cambodian-French filmmaker Rithy Panh’s Oscar-nominated The Missing Picture used static clay figures to illustrate the era.

Dong said the film had reached the editing stage, having secured funding from several sources, including the US-based National Endowment for the Humanities and the Sundance Institute.

“We’re very excited, and we hope to take it to Cambodia when we’re done,” he said on the phone from Los Angeles, where he is based.

The filmmaker visited the country in October 2012 for research, visiting the Documentation Center of Cambodia in Phnom Penh.

Youk Chhang, director of the genocide research centre known as DC-Cam, who was a personal friend of Ngor, has served as an adviser to Dong on the project.

Jack Ong, director of the Dr Haing S. Ngor Foundation. WIKICOMMONS
Jack Ong, director of the Dr Haing S. Ngor Foundation. WIKICOMMONS

“With Haing Ngor, it’s personal,” said Chhang, who was 14 when the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975. He first encountered Ngor when the actor toured a refugee camp on the Thai border in the early 1980s where The Killing Fields was screened before an emotional audience.

“I remember thinking, how can he be a Hollywood star?” said Chhang.

“Everyone thinks of Hollywood stars as tall, blond and muscular, but we saw the cousin of a refugee become a movie star.”

After leaving Cambodia, Chhang moved to Texas and served with the Dallas Police Department. Ngor went on making films. But the pair met a second time when Chhang was back in Cambodia and involved in setting up DC-Cam. He asked Ngor to be on the board of directors. The actor declined, but pledged his support to the organisation.

The two stayed in touch. Chhang has watched The Killing Fields more than 15 times and considers Ngor’s “the first voice of the genocide survivor coming from Cambodia”.

“To me his identity is very clear. You can become a Hollywood star, you can become a policeman, but for people of our generation who had that experience with the Khmer Rouge, it has become our identity.”

Is Dong the right person to tell his story?

“I think his approach is very open and I think that he can make many of us become Haing Ngor and Haing Ngor become many of us, a common people,” said Chhang.

In July this year, an unauthorised effort to tell Ngor’s story on stage drew the ire of the actor’s family, who objected to the play’s mix of fact and fiction and threatened legal action.

Jack Ong, executive director of the Dr Haing S. Ngor Foundation, said this latest film was the first to be approved by both the foundation and Ngor’s niece and the executor of his estate, Sophia Ngor Demetri.

“When the acclaimed filmmaker Arthur Dong approached us with such a proposal, our reaction was instant and unanimous: a professional documentary specialist with Mr Dong’s outstanding credits and integrity is indeed ideal to tackle a film about Dr Haing S. Ngor.”

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