Dith Pran was born in Siem Reap, Cambodia, in 1942 to a public official in charge of building roads. He learnt French at school and taught himself English becoming proficient enough to be hired by the United sates Army as a translator. Following this he worked with Sydney Schoneberg as a translator before remaining in Cambodia under Khmer Rouge rule.
Due to persecution of intellectuals, soldiers and any person whom had previous contact with Americans by the Khmer Rouge, he hid theses facts pretending to be a taxi driver.
He was forced to work in labour camps enduring four years of starvation and torture before Vietnam overthrew the Khmer Rouge in December 1978 with over 50 members of his family perishing.
The Vietnamese had made him village chief but fearing they would discover his US ties he escaped to Thailand on 3 October 1979.
Pran reunited with his friend Schanberg and moved to the United States in 1980 and joined the New York Times, where he worked as a photojournalist, becoming a U.S. citizen in 1986.
Schanberg subsequently wrote about Pran and in 1980 The New York Times Magazine cover article 'The Death and Life of Dith Pran' became the basis of “The Killing Fields.' releaed in 1983 A book by the same title was published in 1985.
After the release of 'The Killing Fields', he campaigned for recognition of the Cambodian genocide victims, especially as founder and president of the Dith Pran Holocaust Awareness Project which maintained a photographic record on the Internet to assist Cambodians in finding missing family members. (This project appears to have been disbanded or transferred after his death in 2008).
He devoted his spare time to helping fellow Cambodians who had suffered under the Khmer Rouge taking several trips back to Cambodia and attempted to bring the Khmer Rouge to justice before the World Court.
Pran interviewed twenty-nine people who had suffered during the takeover and published the results in 1997 as Children of Cambodia's Killing Fields: Memoirs by Survivors.
He was a recipient of an Ellis Island Medal of Honor in 1998 and the Award of Excellence of the International Center.
On 30 March 2008, Pran died, aged 65, in New Brunswick, New Jersey, having been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer just three months earlier.
For Pran, the ghosts of Cambodia remained alive. In an interview with the Site he stated that,
'The memories are still alive to me day and night. It's unbelievable what the Khmer Rouge did to the Cambodian people.'
The Killing Fields (1984) is based on a real life story of American pulitzer prize winning journalist Sydney Schanberg working as a correspondant for the New York Times. and Cambodian journalist Dith Pran who worked with him as a translator and journmlist. It is set in Cambodia during the fall of Cambodia to the Khmer Rouge forces, through the Khmer Rouge period from 1975 to 1979 and afterwards in the Thai refugee camps.
When Canmbodia fell to the communist Khmer Rouge, all foreigners were rouned up into the French Embassy in Phnom Penh then trucked to the Thai border and removed. Dith Pran was offered a place to leave but chose to stay. Subsequently all communication from within Cambodia was cut off to the rest of the world.
Schanberg returning to New York and attempted for four years to discover information about Dith Pran though eventually gave up assuming he was dead. Word eventually came that Pran was alive and had made it across the Thai border to a refugee camp.
It was Pran whom coined the phrase "The Killing fields" to refer to the clusters of corpses and skeletal remains of victims he encountered during his 60 km escape route from Cambodia.
Awards: 8 BAFTA Awards, 3 Academy Awards.
Direction: Roland Joffé
Stars: Sam Waterston as Schanberg, Haing S. Ngor as Pran, Julian Sands as Jon Swain, and John Malkovich as Al Rockoff.
Adaptation for screen: Bruce Robinson
Soundtrack: Mike Oldfield
Orchestrated: David Bedford.
The Empire Movie House:
Arthouse Cinema in Phnom Penh
Number 34 130 street
The Killing Fields
Haing S Ngor
Haing S. Ngor, who plays the main character Pran, was himself a Cambodian and a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime and its forced labour camps. Prior to the Khmer Rouge's take-over he was a doctor from a wealthy family based in Phnom Penh. In 1975, Ngor was one of millions who were moved from the city to forced labour camps in the countryside. He spent four years there before fleeing to the Thaland border refugee camps before being given permission to move to the United States.
He had never acted before and was spotted by the film's casting director, Pat Golden, at a Cambodian wedding in Los Angeles. After many consultations, remembering that he had promised his late wife who had passed away under Khmer Rouge rule, to tell Cambodia's story to the world, he accepted the offer to play the part in the film
He told People magazine in 1985,
'I wanted to show the world how deep starvation is in Cambodia, how many people die under Communist regime. My heart is satisfied. I have done something perfect.'
From this role he won three awards, including a Golden Globe Award and an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. His further roles most memorably include Oliver Stone's Heaven & Earth and the Vanishing Son miniseries.
In 1988, he wrote his autobiography 'A Cambodian Odyssey: Survival in the Killing Fields' describing his life under the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. In the second edition, Roger Warner, Ngor's co-author, adds an epilogue telling the story of Ngor's life after winning the Academy Award.
On February 25, 1996, Ngor was shot dead outside his home in Chinatown, Los Angeles, California. He was buried at Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier, California.
Charged with his murder were three members of the Cambodian "Oriental Lazy Boyz" street gang. They killed Ngor because, after handing over his gold Rolex watch, he refused to give them a locket that contained a photo of his deceased wife, My-Huoy. They were jailed for life.
Ngor had told a New York Times reporter,
'If I die from now on, OK! This film will go on for a hundred years.'
Dith Pran, whom Ngor portrayed in The Killing Fields, said of Ngor's death,
'He is like a twin with me. He is like a co-messenger and right now I am alone.'
The Dr. Haing S. Ngor Foundation Ngor and fellow actor Jack Ong still operates today. Under the auspices of Pastor Ong's church 'Venice Christian Community in Venice, CA, USA' they launched 'Project Cambodia' in 1990 to raise funds to care for orphans and help rebuild Cambodia's devastated infrastructure.
After Ngor's death it was reformed as The Dr. Haing S. Ngor Foundation.
The goals of the Foundation include preserving the legacy of Ngor's accomplishments and human rights endeavors as well as the promotion of Cambodia's history and culture through education, activism and the arts. Ngor's niece, Sophia Ngor Demetri is the current President of the Foundation; Ong serves as Executive Director.
The Empire showing The Killing Fields
Weekdays at 4.00pm