AS Killing Fields actor Sam Waterston wandered around Phnom Penh on his first-ever
visit to Cambodia, he couldn't help but feel as though he had been here before.
"The sights are extraordinarily familiar," he said, attributing his feeling
of deja vu to the skill of the film's art directors.
The Academy-Award winning film, in which he played the character of stern New York
Times journalist Sydney Schanberg, was shot in Thailand in the 1980s.
"It is very accurate. They did a very good job," said Waterston of the
movie's depiction of Cambodia. "Even coming in on the plane, the rivers, the
pagodas, it all looked familiar.
"But at the same time everything is completely brand new to me."
The American actor, in town this month with a delegation from the Washington-based
Refugees International, said that the biggest surprise to him was that the country
was functioning at all.
"When you put together in your imagination the effects of the last 30 years,
you think the whole place would be in pieces.
"So the really striking surprise is that in spite of the continuing effects
of the last 30 years, the people are still going upwards - it's like Lazarus getting
up from death.
"Yes, they are getting enormous assistance from the international community,
but still the determination, the hard-working character of the people and their appetite
to live is just beautiful."
The Refugees International delegation - which included American Online internet service
founder James Kinsey and former congressman Chet Atkins - spent six days in Cambodia
looking at the scourge of landmines. Visiting Phnom Penh, Battambang and Siem Reap,
they met landmine victims, deminers and officials.
"You would think that after a while you would just disintegrate," said
Waterston of the people he met. "You would not get up again.
"There was a man I spoke to who was working for 80 cents a day to feed his family
of five, and couldn't do it. But he continues, and picks grass and plants by the
side of the road to somehow stay alive - very courageous."
Trying to convey the modern-day hardships of Cambodia to an American audience, he
acknowledged, is difficult.
"Anything you say is different [from the reality]. If you say I saw a family
of five living in a very small house by the side of the road, the picture that arises
in your mind... is not going to be anything like this group of people living in stink,
above sewage with a little hole in the ground, amid all this stagnant water, for
"[Killing Fields co-star] Haing Ngor used to say 'Let's go and take a look.'
It is the best way, but after that you should remember that when you tell people
about a hospital, it's not like a hospital in America. When you talk about the military,
it is not the military like in America."
On the extent of America's awareness of Cambodia, Waterston said there was interest
in South-east Asia but news about Cambodia was not as common as that about Vietnam.
Should Americans feel guilt over their part in Cambodia's destruction? Waterston,
asking himself the same question, recalled a conversation he had with the Venerable
Heng Mony-chenda, founder of Buddhism for Development, in Battambang.
"He made me think that this business of guilt or responsibility may not be the
best or the most helpful way to think about this. Of course, we do share with a lot
of other people a part of the responsibility for what happened.
"The Khmers have their own share of responsibility, but that is not the way
to think about it all. What Monychenda said was that to be fully human, we must share
their suffering. Well, I think that was pretty eloquent."
While foreign aid for Cambodia's reconstruction is needed, Waterston said foreigners
should also be aware of the extent that Khmers are trying to help themselves.
"There is an expression: 'You cannot keep a good man down.' I think that might
be the way for people to think about this place.
"Everybody I talked to before I did the movie talked about how Cambodia was
before. I did not expect to find a trace of that when I came here, but it is everywhere.
"You go and see CMAC giving mine awareness training out in the countryside to
a couple of children and you see the enormous feeling coming from the teachers.
"They are teaching about mines but they are also just loving the children with
all their minds, and it turned out they were making a joyful song out of how to avoid
being blown up by a mine. It is quite astonishing."
However, as the images of the film filtered through his mind, Waterston was struck
by how much some things, such as the basic dangers faced by many Cambodians, remain
"One really interesting thing is that of course every single thing that happened
in that movie happened in an atmosphere of enormous tension.
"Everything was a threat. A taxi driver or an interpreter having an argument
about whether you will get on a boat or whether you will go through this checkpoint
- there was the threat of extinction behind every single one of these events.
"And those kinds of things are going on everyday in peace time, or relative
peace time, today. Although the landscape is beautiful, and the social situation
is relatively peaceful, the landscape is mined. It is far from stability and it gives
you a sense of the fragility of things."