The Killing Fields is a 1984 British drama about two journalists covering the unrest in Cambodia for The New York Times in the mid 70s. One is an American foreign correspondent named Sydney Schanberg and the other is a local journalist, who works as Schanberg’s translator, named Dith Pran. A third character valuable to portraying the message of the film is an American photographer, also working with Schanberg for the New York Times, named Al Rockoff.
Watching this film exposes the magnanimity of a foreign correspondent’s task to depict horrific events to readers, in a way that is understandable, does the situation justice and by using only words and photographs. It is a cinematic depiction of selective articulation, which is the way media make sense of chaos and disorder. (van Ginneken, 16) The jobs of Schanberg and Rockoff were even more difficult due to their assigned location, a small, third world country in southeast Asia, and their audience of first world, Western Americans. Media are one of the three professions viewed as a primary authority on knowledge, along with science and education. (van Ginneken, 18) But no matter how accurate the journalists, or neutral their reporting, their audience and readers are likely receiving the information through an ethnocentric world view, automatically built by blocks of knowledge, developed over time, by other worldview-tainted experts. (van Ginneken, 15). For example, the mental frame of east or west alone separates the idea of people as “the other.” (van Ginneken, 8)
The film depicted politics as another barrier between reality and perception of journalistic stories. The United States had little involvement in Cambodia’s conflict, seemingly having no vested interest in the country. When they did decide to take action, it was initially kept a secret from United States citizens. The U.S. dropped bombs into Cambodia, then sent press along with the army to create a sanitized version of the story, unlike the gritty depiction Schanberg was trying to convey.
Schanberg was infuriated by the strategy. Overall, the character of Schanberg seemed very concerned about conveying the truth of the situation in his story. Although, initially he was appeared highly motivated by journalistic benefits that could be reaped to feed a trade ego. As the story progressed, his concern the story became less of a priority as he became more involved with the turmoil occurring in Cambodia and his relationship with Pran deepened. Any ties he had to how the Cambodian situation affected his career seemed to snap when the enemy Khmer Rouge forced him to be separated by his colleague-turned-friend Pran. After returning to the United States, Schanberg is awarded with a Pulitzer Prize, but by then he had become so immersed in the reality of the situation, rather than the story, that he hardly cared for the award and only wanted to find his friend.
Rockoff’s character also showed an evolution of caring and involvement throughout the film. He is introduced early as direct coworker of Schanberg, and his nonchalant and somewhat abrasive attitude also hints a callous regard for the horrific situation he is covering as a photographer. As the movie flashes scenes of bloody violence and human despair, Rockoff easily takes his pictures, not seeming to care for context, only the content of his work. Yet, along with Schanberg, his heart seems to open as he spends more time in the midst of tragedy. His transformation is demonstrated when he and his fellow journalists try to protect Pran from being taken away by the Khmer Rouge, in forging him a British passport. Sadly, the effort failed and Pran was forced to stay in Cambodia under the dangerous Khmer Rouge regime, while westerners were evacuated.
Pran’s character was unique in that his worldview was not infiltrated by western beliefs. His story was the story being covered; he was Cambodian. Remarkably, he holds strong to the job at hand as a journalist, facing terrible danger. Yet, unlike western journalists, he is not motivated by pride or prospective praise and reward. He is moved more deeply by loyalty to his own country and conviction to share the truth.
It would be a shame not to discuss the structure of the film itself as a break in conventional western media. The story introduces a western protagonist, Schanberg, his sidekick, Rockoff, and their subservient assistant, Pran. After lots of action and danger, the three of them must make their escape. Unfortunately, only the two westerners are able to leave and Pran is left to probably die. Typically, this would be the end. The westerner is the hero, he stoically reaps his hard-earned reward, and his poor, eastern friend suffered an unfortunate fate. However, by this point the film is only halfway over. The rest of the story focuses completely on Pran and he becomes the new hero. Since he could not escape with the others, he is taken into a prison camp run by the Khmer Rouge. The subsequent scenes depict a more realistic, however unsettling, visual of just how awful the Cambodians massacres really were. At one point, Pran finds himself in the infamous killing fields, where thousands of Cambodians were murdered, their corpses left to rot. He survives and makes his way to freedom. The Killing Fields was extremely successful in breaking ethnocentric molds by dedicating so much of the film to an atypical hero and the reality of an overlooked bit of news.
Finally, The Killing Fields offers a glimpse at how the world of news could be different if more journalists were sent into the heart of a situation being covered, or, even better, if local journalists of foreign countries could receive the media space reserved for western stories. Perhaps, over time, realistic news stories could put a few cracks in the walls of our worldviews of readers.
Van Ginneken, Japp. (1998). “Understanding Global News.” Thousand Oaks, CA. Sage Publications.
Puttnam, David, Smith, Iain. Joffe, Roland. (1984). The Killing Fields. United Kingdom.
Written as a course assignment for Journalism Media and Cultures at the University of Memphis