After ‘The Killing Fields,’ a Director Reflects

Roland Joffe could never have known how a story of friendship that he helped to tell, born out of one of the greatest tragedies of the last century, would endure and intrigue people to this day.

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Film director Roland Joffe discusses ‘The Killing Fields’ in Phnom Penh on Monday. (Lauren Crothers/The Cambodia Daily)

But his 1984 directorial debut, “The Killing Fields,” is still one of the most widely referenced films on Cambodia. It was nominated for seven Oscars and won three, one of which went to the untrained actor Haing Ngor, who played the Cambodian reporter Dith Pran.

Now 67, 28 years have passed since the film’s release, and Mr. Joffe is back in Cambodia to participate in the launch of the new book “Phnom Penh Noir” at the Foreign Correspondents Club on Friday.

Mr. Joffe now has an arsenal of films under his belt. However, he has stayed connected to Cambodia, not only through the film’s continued popularity as a historical tool, but also through his work as one of the founders of the Cambodia Trust, which helps disabled people.

Sitting on a sofa in Raffles Hotel Le Royal on Monday, Mr. Joffe said that the Cambodia he sought to portray in “The Killing Fields”—which was ultimately shot in Thailand and tells the story of The New York Times journalist Sydney Schanberg and Dith Pran as Lon Nol’s Cambodia crumbles under the Khmer Rouge onslaught—has given way to a country pushing ahead with its growth policies almost totally unchecked. He describes the country as something of an “unruly teenager.”

“One can see many of the same problems trying to rear their heads again. Life in the countryside is as tough as it ever was. [Cambodia has] grown up in a very sort of remarkable way in a sense…in such a different world to the world that was [here] before it sickened and died, which I think is a good way to describe what happened with the Khmer Rouge,” he said.

Mr. Joffe believes neat divisions and competing ideologies typified pre-civil war Cambodia, but that these structures were not rebuilt after the conflict subsided.

“What you have universally is crony capitalism, and crony capitalism is quite destructive…it has no checks. It’s difficult to find what language to use to delineate what crony capitalism is, because it appears now to be the norm,” Mr. Joffe said.

“So I come here and I watch crony capitalism…and you can’t blame the country for that, because it is the yeast the country has grown up in. Where that’s going to lead I don’t know; I’m not a prophet.”

Nearby, groups of tourists had congregated in one of Raffles Hotel’s two swimming pools. Although “The Killing Fields” was not filmed at the hotel, scenes in the film depict Sydney Schanberg and other Western journalists who stayed at Le Royal before the fall of Phnom Penh.

Today, it is hard to imagine such history unfolded here.

But perhaps that is the point. And Mr. Joffe is eager to look forward, to tell more stories, and to see Cambodians telling their own stories too. On Friday evening he will be a speaker at the launch of “Phnom Penh Noir.” And before departing Cambodia next week, he will also help to raise funds for the local Rotary Club.

Mr. Joffe believes the next crop of Cambodian stories are not necessarily his, or any other Westerners, to tell.

“The stories will be the same, but expressed in a Cambodian way. How do the sexes relate to each other, what’s a good human being? How are we to live? I think these are all great questions, but they must be told by Cambodians.”

Mr. Joffe is still interested in what he calls “a work in progress”—making a film about a disabled Cambodian volleyball team. He remembers seeing them play once against a German team kitted out with the most advanced prosthetics, and remembers seeing the Cambodians wincing in pain.

“But it was such a mess, and courage and personal enterprise…I loved the crowd standing on their feet cheering—that’s a wonderful contrast to the city being cleared out. It says something wonderful about human beings.”

After “The Killing Fields,” Mr. Joffe made “The Mission,” a sweeping epic that brought actors Robert de Niro and Jeremy Irons together on screen, which was also nominated for multiple Academy Awards. Both films focused heavily on human relationships.

“Friendship fascinates me—I think it’s a very beautiful and misunderstood thing,” he said.

Subsequent films have failed to match the acclaim of his first two, but that has not fazed Mr. Joffe.

“I didn’t want to be a director who was known for doing X or Y,” he said. “I didn’t think I wanted to make a career out of being a director; I wanted to make a career out of living and learning.”

Still, he said, he cannot help but be moved by the fact that “The Killing Fields” continues to have an impact to this day, and said it is “very touching” when people tell him so.

“I try to dissociate from the movie; the movie is not me, it’s something that many people have worked on,” he said. “But I don’t think one can help but be touched if someone comes to you and says ‘I saw this two weeks ago and my God’—it’s rather nice.”

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