Sunday, March 30, 2008

R.I.P. Dith Pran...The Killing Fields

(from the NYTimes)

Dith Pran, a photojournalist for The New York Times whose gruesome ordeal in the killing fields of Cambodia was re-created in a 1984 movie that gave him an eminence he tenaciously used to press for his people’s rights, died in New Brunswick, N.J., on Sunday. He was 65 and lived in Woodbridge, N.J.

Mr. Dith saw his country descend into a living hell as he scraped and scrambled to survive the barbarous revolutionary regime of the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979, when as many as two million Cambodians — a third of the population — were killed, experts estimate. Mr. Dith survived through nimbleness, guile and sheer desperation.

He had been a journalistic partner of Mr. Schanberg, a Times correspondent assigned to Southeast Asia. He translated, took notes and pictures, and helped Mr. Schanberg maneuver in a fast-changing milieu. With the fall of Phnom Penh in 1975, Mr. Schanberg was forced from the country, and Mr. Dith became a prisoner of the Khmer Rouge, the Cambodian Communists.

Mr. Schanberg wrote about Mr. Dith in newspaper articles and in The New York Times Magazine, in a 1980 cover article titled “The Death and Life of Dith Pran.” (A book by the same title appeared in 1985.) The story became the basis of the movie “The Killing Fields.”The film, directed by Roland JoffĂ©, portrayed Mr. Schanberg, played by Sam Waterston, arranging for Mr. Dith’s wife and children to be evacuated from Phnom Penh as danger mounted. Mr. Dith, portrayed by Dr. Haing S. Ngor (who won an Academy Award as best supporting actor), insisted on staying in Cambodia with Mr. Schanberg to keep reporting the news.

A dramatic moment, both in reality and cinematically, came when Mr. Dith saved Mr. Schanberg and other Western journalists from certain execution by talking fast and persuasively to the trigger-happy soldiers who had captured them.

But despite frantic effort, Mr. Schanberg could not keep Mr. Dith from being sent to the countryside to join millions working as virtual slaves.

Mr. Schanberg returned to the United States and was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting from Cambodia. He accepted it on behalf of Mr. Dith as well.

For years there was no news of Mr. Dith, except for a false rumor that he had been fed to alligators. His brother had been. After more than four years of beatings, backbreaking labor and a diet of a tablespoon of rice a day, Mr. Dith, on Oct. 3, 1979, escaped over the Thai border. Mr. Schanberg flew to greet him.

Mr. Dith moved to New York and in 1980 became a photographer for The Times, where he was noted for his imaginative pictures of city scenes and news events. In one, he turned the camera on mourners rather than the coffin to snatch an evocative moment at the funeral of Rabbi Chaskel Werzberger, a rabbi murdered in 1990.

Outside The Times, Mr. Dith spoke out about the Cambodian genocide, appearing before students, senior citizens and other groups. “I’m a one-person crusade,” he said.

Dith Pran was born on Sept. 23, 1942, in Siem Reap, Cambodia, a provincial town near the ancient temples at Angkor Wat. His father was a public-works official.

Having learned French at school and taught himself English, Mr. Dith was hired as a translator for the United States Military Assistance Command. When Cambodia severed ties with the United States in 1965, he worked with a British film crew, then as a hotel receptionist.

In the early 1970s, as unrest in neighboring Vietnam spread and Cambodia slipped into civil war, the Khmer Rouge grew more formidable. Tourism ended. Mr. Dith interpreted for foreign journalists. When working for Mr. Schanberg, he taught himself to take pictures.

When the Khmer Rouge won control in 1975, Mr. Dith became part of a monstrous social experiment: the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of people from the cities and the suppression of the educated classes with the goal of recreating Cambodia as an agricultural nation.

To avoid summary execution, Mr. Dith hid that he was educated or that he knew Americans. He passed himself off as a taxi driver. He even threw away his money and dressed as a peasant.

Over the next 4 ½ years, he worked in the fields and at menial jobs. For sustenance, people ate insects and rats and even the exhumed corpses of the recently executed, he said.

In November 1978, Vietnam, by then a unified Communist nation after the end of the Vietnam War, invaded Cambodia and overthrew the Khmer Rouge. Mr. Dith went home to Siem Reap, where he learned that 50 members of his family had been killed; wells were filled with skulls and bones.

The Vietnamese made him village chief. But he fled when he feared that they had learned of his American ties. His 60-mile trek to the Thai border was fraught with danger. Two companions were killed by a land mine.

He had an emotional reunion with his wife, Ser Moeun Dith, and four children in San Francisco. Though he and his wife later divorced, she was by his bedside in his last weeks, bringing him rice noodles.

Mr. Dith was either separated or divorced from his second wife, Kim DePaul, Mr. Schanberg said.

Mr. Dith is survived by his companion, Bette Parslow; his daughter, Hemkarey; his sons, Titony, Titonath and Titonel; a sister, Samproeuth; six grandchildren; and two stepgrandchildren.

Ms. DePaul now runs the Dith Pran Holocaust Awareness Project, which spreads word about the Cambodian genocide. At his death, Mr. Dith was working to establish another, still-unnamed organization to help Cambodia. In 1997, he published a book of essays by Cambodians who had witnessed the years of terror as children.

Dr. Ngor, the physician turned actor who had himself survived the killing fields, had joined with Mr. Dith in their fight for justice. He was shot to death in 1996 in Los Angeles by a teenage gang member.

“It seems like I lost one hand,” Mr. Dith said of Dr. Ngor’s death.

Mr. Dith nonetheless pushed ahead in his campaign against genocide everywhere.

“One time is too many,” he said in an interview in his last weeks, expressing hope that others would continue his work. “If they can do that for me,” he said, “my spirit will be happy.”

STOP-LOSS...see this film

Kimberly Peirce's last film was 9 years ago, Boys Don't Cry, a disturbing film that brought to light the senselessness of intolerance. Now, her first film since then is Stop-Loss, a term used to soldiers who have served their obligation in the U.S. Army and risked their lives in the Iraq War. But, this is not another film on the War, so please go and see it.

Peirce started this film as a documentary, but when her brother came back from his Iraq tour of duty, the letters and video taken by the soldiers themselves compelled her to tell the story through the soldiers eyes. Yes, it is graphically, brutally violent, but the depictions are real. The gore and senselessness of this war and the psychological consequences on these young men who serve has never been so right on.

And, I don't say this lightly or from some film critic's eye. I know how gruesome and damaging war is. I volunteered at a physical therapy Army hospital during the Vietnam War where landmines blew off multiple limbs on soldiers. One young man, barely 26 years old, returned from Vietnam with just a torso, but his spirit seemed still intact during his whirlpool therapies. Immersed in the pool, I lost sense of his missing limbs. He was still a person, with emotions, a generous forgiving heart and a mind that will never forget. A few months later, when he was released from rehab to go home to his family, his family shunned him because they didn't want to be reminded of what the war did to him, cheating him and them out of life. He died a year later from depression.

The Iraq War destroys so many lives. All war annihilates people, physically and mentally. Peirce pierces through the glories of filmmaking and hits the tragic story of how wartime violence begets domestic and personal violence. Whatever the critics' reviews are about this film, one wonders if they've ever been to war because if they had, I doubt if the word "melodrama" would ever enter that review.

This is an important film, the most realistic I've seen. It's not easy to watch, by any means, but necessary to experience.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A VERY SAD DAY, INDEED...R.I.P. Anthony Minghella

Though I've been writing all my life, it's only been until recently that I delved into the magic of storytelling through celluoid and digital main inspiration was Anthony Minghella. His brilliant genius illuminated a path to attempt, albeit feebly, to follow in his footsteps, but no one will ever be able to do that. He was one of a kind. I shall sorely miss him deeply. No matter where you are, Anthony, you will always be my hero.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Saturday, March 1, 2008

March rings in with Grace Pongs

My dear, dear friend, Gracie watches her two Pa's pong around. She's learning to be the next Martina N. of the pong table. Intellectual gal. Very left brain. Watch how she watches every move...

Go Gracie!

Monday, February 25, 2008

Midas touched some...

It's really sad when beautiful films that halt and haunt you go unnoticed on Oscar night, evaporating in the ether, buried deep in the Netflix catalogue for no one to put in queue. AMPAS, did your screeners get lost in the mail? Last night I watched 80 years worth of Oscars. Had I known, I wouldn't have stayed up for four hours all those previous years. I thought the writers went back to work? If I had to see another historical clip, my neighbors would've called the police. And, was Jon Stewart on valium?...zzzzz. All that money, the dresses, the jewelry, the hairdo's, the facials, the shoes, the red carpet, the weatherproof tents. Hollywood can add another hundred mill to the $2.5 Billion loss from the WGA strike.

Is it just me or were real films ignored - like 4 mos, 3 wks, 2 nights or Into the Wild, naming two out of the hundreds out there? I like the Coen Bros, I really do. They thanked everyone for letting them play in a corner of the sandbox...I wish someone would let me IN the sandbox, let alone play for one minute. Someday, someone will listen. And maybe, just maybe, some day, they will let me in...I'll even bring my own sand.

I was disappointed about Tilda Swinton. She's a fine actess indeed, but Ruby had finer moments as did Laura. No Country is a good movie, but not better than many other films that weren't even nominated. It's easy to criticize, I know. But, one listens to me anyway, so I can say what I want.

Speaking of films that might get lost in the friend's film UP THE YANGTZE will be in theaters in April...go see it. It's stunningly shot, a doc feature.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

From the inside

I want to be him.

Teaching is like a brussel sprout, either you love it or you don't. I happen to find it exhilirating and deeply rewarding to witness the transformations in students who actually get what I say. I admit, teaching fulfills my need to have people listen to me. So, teaching's perfect for someone who strives to be an authority figure. Last night, I had about 60 students in two classes, Beginning Acting and Intermediate Acting. For most of the students, English was a second, if not struggling, language...and it was perfect. From my heart, kudo's to immigrants! Screw immigration laws. We are all people working to live our lives. America created the American Dream. Let us aspire to those dreams instead of spending wasteful time stomping on people's heads. Apologies for the off tangent spin, but it just came out. Sometimes that happens.

So, anyway, back to the kids in the class...between the ages of 13-23. After substitute teaching in NYC public high schooIs, I was ready for a nightful of headache inducing urban contemporary gestures (UCG's - credit given to my friend, Ms. P, who came up with that term). You know, the "unh-unh finger flicking hand swirling body tilting hip jutting head turkey-bobbing" kind of rebelliousness that makes me want to smack them on the side of the head and say, "go to your room" only they're not your kid and this is a class in Harlem, afterall. I was so wrong. I'll be the first to admit downfalls and smack-myself-in-the-head bites of the tongue ignorant outbursts. I am fallible, and terribly prejudiced. I don't pretend to understand the current trend to save Darfur when so much of what is going on there remains globally prevalent. Why Darfur? Why not Burma or Sierra Leone with the largest child soldier armies in the world? Sorry, sorry, I sway again.

But, last night, these kids melted my heart and taught me instead. Every one of them wanted to be an actor because, "it'll give me confidence, teach me how to speak English better, be famous so that I can help my people, I can let everything inside all out and come out of depression for a little while." I gave them exercises, scenes to act out in their own words. A mother dying. A person murdered before their eyes. Witnessing a rape. An abandoning father. A choice of killing someone to save your own life. I could not have written a better script. Their words were viscerally poignant, made me cry, made the other kids cry. They got it. They got that acting comes from within, that the script has to come from you. Then, I handed out corks (I sterilize and collect them to hand out in situations like this). They each gripped the corks between their teeth and recited, "the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain," over and over and over. Then they took the corks out and recited it was music. Their voices were pure, nearly accent free. They wowed each other and me, laughed from the amazement of their transformation that they were speaking English, clearly, crisply, cleanly like the true Americans they really are but never knew because people kept telling them otherwise. I learned more from them than they from me last night...and I thought...I love teaching and having someone listen to what I have to say.