Three decades after the release of his movie The Killing Fields, producer David Puttnam returned to a much different Cambodia, where he was feted by local filmmakers and a contingent of foreign diplomats and academics for a seminal work that redefined genocide in the public conscience.
Among the more amazing aspects associated with the legacy of the movie, Puttnam said, was how the title had become synonymous with genocides around the world – although there were earlier indications that the film would leave its mark.
Shortly before its release in 1984, a special screening was organized for the families of Dith Pran, who worked with Sydney Schanberg at The New York Times and Haing Ngor, himself a refugee who fled Pol Pot and would portray Dith Pran in the movie.
“When the film ended there was complete silence. The families sat and wept for 10 minutes, they cried and cried and cried. It was then we knew we had succeeded, we knew the film had worked,” said the now Baron Puttnam, a member of Britain’s House of Lords.
“I’ve never had the privilege of seeing it here in Cambodia and I’ve never watched it with a Cambodian audience,” he added. “If only Dith Pran and Haing Ngor could be here tonight.”
Both men have since died.
The evening, hosted by the German Cultural Center and the British embassy at Meta House here in Phnom Penh, was timed to mark the 30th anniversary of the film’s original release with the bringing out of the Blu-ray version. The Killing Fields won three Oscars and eight British Academy awards.
Puttnam, who would produce other award-winning movies such as Chariots of Fire, said journalists and their inside knowledge of Indochinese conflicts in the 1960s and 1970s had contributed heavily to the movie, in particular Australian combat cameraman Neil Davis.
“Neil’s advice on the Bouncing Betty and how to use them was wonderful,” he said of the anti-personnel land mine that detonates after pressure is released, springing up and blowing shrapnel in all directions.
Of the more graphic moments in the movie was the forced evacuation of Phnom Penh launched almost immediately after the Khmer Rouge arrived in April 1975 and began sacking the capital, as seen through the eyes of Schanberg, photographer Al Rockoff, British journalist Jon Swain, and Dith Pran. It was the beginning of Pol Pot’s reign, which would last until early 1979 and claim the lives of up to 2.2 million people.
That legacy is still in the dock at the ongoing Khmer Rouge Tribunal, where two senior leaders await a verdict on charges of crimes against humanity stemming from the en masse evacuation of the capital. Thirty-eight years after the event, Rockoff gave evidence at the tribunal.
Puttnam said he could not remember who came up with The Killing Fields title but stressed genocide must never be allowed to happen anywhere again.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt