This issue, we continue our look at the classics with analysis of The Killing Fields, the Oscar-winning fictionalisation of the experiences of two journalists working in war-torn 1970s Cambodia…
Director: Roland Joffé
Screenplay: Bruce Robinson
Based on: ‘The Death and Life of Dith Pran: A Story of Cambodia’ by Sydney Schanberg The New York Times Magazine (20 January 1980) – there’s also an ebook version of the article available to purchase
New York Times reporter, Sydney Schanberg, arrives to cover the conflict. Schanberg and Dith Pran, a Cambodian journalist and interpreter, visit Neak Leung, which has allegedly been hit by American bombs, resulting in destruction and mass casualties. Arrested when photographing the execution of two Khmer Rouge operatives, Schanberg and Pran are eventually released.
Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 1975. International embassies are being evacuated in anticipation of the arrival of the Khmer Rouge. Schanberg arranges for the evacuation of Pran and his family. Pran sends his family away to safety but stays to help Schanberg.
The Khmer Rouge arrive in the capital. Schanberg and some other correspondents are arrested. Pran goes with them but, as a Cambodian civilian, he is unharmed. He negotiates to spare the lives of his friends and they retreat to the French embassy.
The Khmer Rouge order all Cambodian citizens in the embassy to be handed over. Some of the foreign journalists try to help Pran, but he ends up being taken by the Khmer Rouge and forced to live under their totalitarian regime.
Schanberg returns to New York and tries to locate Pran, who has become a forced agricultural labourer under the Khmer Rouge’s Year Zero policy.
Pran makes an unsuccessful attempt to escape, finding the infamous killing fields of the Pol Pot regime, where it murdered up to 2m Cambodian citizens.
1976. Schanberg is awarded a Pulitzer prize for his coverage of the Cambodian conflict. He is confronted and accused of not doing enough to locate Pran, as well as coercing him into staying in Cambodia when he had the chance to flee with his family.
Pran eventually manages to escape his captors and finds a Red Cross camp near the border of Thailand.
Word reaches Schanberg and he calls Pran’s family with the news that Pran is alive and safe. Schanberg travels to the Red Cross camp and is reunited with Pran. He asks Pran to forgive him. “Nothing to forgive, Sydney,” Pran replies.
There’s often a fine line between drama, docu-drama and documentary. The Killing Fields is a good example of this, as while it has a clear dramatic narrative driven by a central human relationship; it is also ‘documentary-esque’ in its portrayal of events in Cambodia. As viewers, we are ‘on the ground’ with Schanberg and Pran – going where they go and seeing what they see.
This is a film based on a journalistic account, written by Schanberg, a journalist who extensively covered events in Cambodia and chronicled both what was going on and his personal friendship with Pran. In preparing for the film, the filmmakers sourced extensive archive material from The New York Times, and talked with the actual people portrayed in the film.
From this, Robinson pieced together the facts and laid the personal story on top, weaving in a sense of realism and ‘docu-drama’. As with the Russian Revolution and Communism in Reds (last issue’s analysis), if you go into this film knowing nothing about Cambodia’s experiences during the 1970s – the Vietnam War, the actions of the US military, civil war and the Khmer Rouge – you’ll leave with a vivid and visceral sense of the suffering, violence and inhumanity.
This is ‘dramatic reportage’, infused with actual broadcast news reports that add authenticity and realism, as well as offering up important exposition to give us a sense of context (with references to Richard Nixon, Watergate and a flavour of how events in Cambodia were being reported back in the US). Viewers get to experience the ‘official story’, as well as the real story, as witnessed first-hand by Schanberg and Pran (et al).
As we explore further in this issue’s feature article, film allows us to get into the heart of the action and witness it up close to really show what’s going on. However, in the case of The Killing Fields, we get this as a backdrop to what is essentially a story of friendship. We follow both men on their separate paths and rejoice when they are finally reunited. It’s interesting to note the comments of Joffé, who points out that Schanberg’s treatment of Pran mirrors that of the US’s treatment of Cambodia – when writing, always be looking for these types of connections to strengthen the central story.
According to producer, David Puttnam, when shown to preview audiences, longer cuts of the film received negative reactions. On his return to New York, in the longer cuts, Schanberg gets increasingly obsessed with tracking Pran down and as a result becomes indulgent and loses sympathy. Likewise, further cuts were made to other aspects to improve pace.
It’s also worth mentioning an interesting and pivotal sequence which was invented for the film. Schanberg is shown collecting his award, making a speech referencing Pran and then being confronted in the men’s room. He is angrily accused of coercing Pran into staying Cambodia and also not doing enough to help find him. Puttnam notes that while the sequence is fiction, the content is “an important fiction” – in the sense that this was a valid and actual accusation levelled against Schanberg that the men’s room scene allows to be articulated by one person. When writing, brevity is the key – instead of having lots of people voicing the same thought, let one character sum it up in one well-structured scene/sequence.
So, just how realistic is The Killing Fields? Rather than take our word for it, we’ll leave to Puttnam to sum it up: “You take a subject like that, where everyone’s still alive [as of 2005] and pretty polarised on the outcome…[but] everyone’s had to concede that the film’s an accurate portrayal of the events and the emotions.”
The Lesson? The important thing to remember when writing a screenplay is that you’re representing visual images in your words. This means you can only write what can be seen and heard.
It’s this visceral aspect that allows you to take readers/audiences into the heart of the action and show them what’s really going on, just as Schanberg and Pran (et al) did with the Cambodian conflict in their capacity as journalists.
If you’re telling a ‘journalistic’ fact-based film, remember that you have the opportunity to go even further than the newspaper accounts by literally taking your audience by the hand, leading them into the fire and showing them the ugly reality.
Just ensure that humanity remains at the heart of the film, just as The Killing Fields is a story of friendship that unfolds against the backdrop of the bloody and violent Cambodian conflict.
Issue 6 of RSL is out on 3 August
[References: The Killing Fields DVD, 2-Disc Special Edition, 2005, Omnibus ‘The Making of The Killing Fields’ & exclusive interview with producer, David Puttnam]