The Life and Strange Death of the Khmer Rouge Survivor Who Won an Oscar, Then Got Murdered
Today marks the 20-year anniversary of the murder of Haing S. Ngor, which some believe was ordered by the Khmer Rouge in response to his role in 'The Killing Fields.'
Haing S. Ngor and Sophia Ngor at the Oscars in 1985. Photo by Mark Elias, courtesy of Arthur Dong
Twenty years ago today, Khmer Rouge survivor and Academy Award-winning actor Haing S. Ngor was gunned down just yards from his Los Angeles home. Ngor had been made famous for his role in the 1984 film The Killing Fields, for which he won the Oscar for best supporting actor. Officially, three teenaged members of the Oriental Lazy Boyz gang were convicted of Ngor's murder, but many in Cambodia believe his assassination was ordered by Pol Pot, who led the Khmer Rouge.
The controversy around his death—and the remarkable achievements of his life—are charted in The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor, a film made last year by filmmaker Arthur Dong. Dong, a former Oscar nominee who was recently appointed distinguished professor of film at Loyola Marymount University, has spent four decades of movie-making on issues of race, gender, and violence. To make The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor, he dug through the Ngor family's personal records and archives of the Pol Pot era, blending the footage with interviews and original animation to paint a life-size picture of a reluctant star who used his fame to campaign for justice in his homeland.
Ngor suffered four years of torture and starvation in labor camps before escaping Cambodia in 1979, but his wife—along with almost 2 million people—died under the Khmer Rouge regime. His murder 12 years later was seen by some as payback by Pol Pot, still alive and controlling large parts of the country, for starring in The Killing Fields and speaking out against the regime. To many in the Cambodian-American community, this explanation made more sense than the official conclusion that Ngor's murder was a gang-related robbery (Ngor's Rolex had been stolen, but his Mercedes and $2,900 in cash were left in plain sight at the scene of the crime). Then, in 2009, during a UN-led Khmer Rouge tribunal, Kang Kek Leu (or "Comrade Duch") testified that Pol Pot had indeed ordered Dr. Ngor's assassination, adding to the conspiracy theories.
As a filmmaker, Dong was intrigued by Duch's claims, but he had always planned to turn his lens on Ngor's life story rather than focus on his death.
VICE: As a filmmaker, what brought you to the story of Haing S. Ngor almost a decade after his death?
Arthur Dong: His was such a dramatic journey, such an emotional human story. You know, if you read his book, you see that it is really a love story—for the love of his wife who he lost during the war. So that's how I constructed the film, as a love story. Throughout my body of my work, I have always looked at culture and social justice issues, but it's always told through the lens of human experience and how these larger issues are framed through a person's life. And Dr. Ngor's life was so exhilarating.
How important was it to contextualize period in Cambodian history that Dr. Ngor survived?
I quickly learned that the history of that era is so intricate, and there were so many international forces at work in Cambodia at this time. [Making this film] told me how little as an American I know, especially about America's involvement during this period. But as a filmmaker, the emotional story is my job; as an audience member, I am only ever engaged when the story is emotional. When a film starts to get didactic, that's a different type of film and not the kind I am interested in. So I knew from the start that this was a film about Dr. Ngor's life journey, and audiences wouldn't be interested if it was bogged down. I also understood that the hardships that he lived through, the atrocities that he witnessed, and his accomplishments in life wouldn't have the impact if the audience didn't understand what had gone on. So I had to find a really intricate balance between his story and what the audience needed to know about the history at a minimum to really appreciate what he went through.
The film was widely acclaimed in the US, but you recently went to Cambodia and showed the film in four different cities. How did audiences there respond there?
You know, when I first landed in Phnom Penh, I had a debriefing by the US Embassy, and the people there warned me that Cambodian audiences hardly ever stayed for the credits, never mind for the Q&A. They tried to prepare me. But at all our screenings, people stayed behind and talked about the movie. We were pleasantly surprised—it was a big success.
In Dr. Ngor's hometown of Samrong Yong in Takeo province, a tiny little village, we screened it in the yard of a primary school he financed, and it was like a big carnival—kids running around, old people in wheelchairs came, vendors selling toys and candy and food I'd never seen before. I've been to a lot of screenings in my life, but that one was the most amazing audiences I have ever experienced.
How did they react to an American telling this story?
One of the questions that would always come up in Cambodia was, "What am I?" Meaning, am I Cambodian? And of course, I'm not. But they were surprised because they felt the movie has an authentic Cambodian sensibility. At one one of the screenings, the young Khmer filmmaker Kulikar Sotho, who directed the movie The Last Reel, told me she worries when foreigners try and tell the story of her country—she called me a foreigner, too. But she also told me this movie felt was very true to her, very authentic. I was very proud of that.
Would you say Dr. Ngor's story resonates with young Cambodians who didn't live through the Khmer Rouge era?
Well, I'm not an expert on Cambodian culture and history, which is why I relied on a panel of advisors to help me produce this film, but as far as I am aware, there were few heroes during this period that people looked up to. That's why Dr. Ngor's story is so important because he survived this not as a victim but as someone who asked, "What can we do about this?" It is not uncommon for people who experienced this kind of trauma to want to forget about the past, to not want to talk about it, and that has happened in Cambodia to a certain extent, and it is a very common response. But Dr. Ngor didn't want that. He fought for these crimes to not be forgotten, and he wanted those who were responsible to be brought to justice.
In many ways, Dr. Ngor gave a voice to younger people in Cambodia by saying it's OK to tell this story, we don't need to be quiet about this, they can try and hide the extent of what happened, but they won't hide it forever. He needed the truth to come out, and he worked hard to bring the truth to light by speaking out and working with the UN, for example. And of course, he wrote it all down in his very popular book, and this film is very much an extension of his project.
Do you think there is something fundamental about his story to the immigrant experience in the US?
For immigrants and refugees, there is no one path. I come from an immigrant family myself, and some families like my own stayed steeped in the culture they were from. Some want to forget and assimilate, and say, "This is America. This is our new home." Some are a mix. With Dr. Ngor, he couldn't forget his experiences, and at the beginning, he didn't want to participate in The Killing Fields. He was a social worker in Chinatown in the US trying to help immigrant communities, and he just wanted to get his practice going, but he was chosen by the filmmaking world to be a voice, and he was finally persuaded by those around him to be the voice to tell their story—little did he know how powerful that voice would become.
Both Dr. Ngor's niece and nephew were involved in the movie, and his estate granted you full access to its archives. Was it difficult to convince the family to revisit his death after gaining closure of sorts through the murder trial?
Since his death in 1996, Dr. Ngor's family members have been approached by many filmmakers, but they have turned them all down. But the executive director of the Haing Ngor Foundation is the actor Jack Orm, and when I became interested, I contacted him and asked him what it would take to get access to his story. He said, "Are you serious? We've always wanted you to do it, but we thought you were too busy." So they were waiting for the right filmmaker to come along, someone who they felt they could trust, and when we started, they didn't ask me for any editorial input and really let me do the movie how I wanted. And of course, his nephew Wayne Ngor did voiceover, and his niece Sophia Ngor Demetri has come to a lot of the screenings and Q&As. Thankfully, they liked the movie.
The gang members sentenced for his murder are still in prison. But after working on this movie in light of the sensational comments made by "Comrade Duch" that Pol Pot was being behind the killing, do you think justice has been served?
There were three trials. Each one of the defendants had a trial, and there were convictions. They went through their appeals and were denied, and they have now exhausted the appeal process. That's the American justice system. But for me, the jury's still out. I acknowledge the convictions, but you also have to acknowledge that no one forced Duch to say what he did. No one even asked him. He was just describing the tactics Pol Pot used to get rid of his enemies, and he just included this comment about Haing Ngor. You know, talk to some people, and they'll say Duch is crazy; others will argue that he was inside the regime and knew exactly what went on. For me as a storyteller, it was certainly a key, dramatic moment, and for those who raise questions about Dr. Ngor's murder, it gives a reason for the conspiracies to continue.
Before Dr. Ngor's death, his family feared his life might be in danger. During the making of your own movie, did any of his family members feel threatened due to their involvement?
You know, things are still happening in Long Beach [where many Cambodians who fled the genocide settled]. In fact, when we had our premiere at the Cambodia Town Film Festival, there were some security procedures—especially for his niece, Sophia. So those kind of threats, I guess, are still real in some communities. To put that into perspective, when we were screening the film in Dr. Ngor's village in Takeo province, there was commotion among a cluster of people who were yelling and screaming. I don't speak Khmer, but my interpreter said we needed to get security guards over there quick because a former Khmer Rouge person who still believed the KR virtues was commenting on the film and being righteous about what had happened to Dr. Ngor, saying this is the way it should have been. So the security guards had to intervene. I mean, you know the history of the current regime in Cambodia. And look at the funeral last year for Ieng Thirith [Pol Pot's sister-in-law and "First Lady of the Khmer Rouge," who was also on trial but freed by the tribunal after being declared unfit for trial due to Alzheimer's disease]. What was going on there? It was reported as being this wonderful, lavish funeral, and she was one of the senior KR figures. So it's not surprising that there is still conspiracy.
Ngor was an early advocate for the Khmer Rouge tribunal, and toward the end of the film, you show footage of the only two regime leaders convicted by the tribunal for crimes against humanity. Do you see this as closure of a sort, or is the process just beginning?
It's part closure, part chronology. It's certainly an outcome that Ngor would have wanted, but it's not the end, and the final scene of the movie shows Dr. Ngor expressing that sentiment. For some viewers, I felt it would be important to know that even though its symbolic, some of the leaders were convicted. But it's not everybody—a lot of people got away with murder. And the footage is real, it's what happened. There's been progress yes, on some levels, but there's also a lot of work still to be done.
There are still an awful lot of issues, a lot of poverty. People have said to me, "So you've been to Cambodia. Wasn't it fun? Wasn't it beautiful?" And I say, "It depends on where you've been." If all you do is hang out downtown in Siem Reap and go see Angkor Wat, then sure, it's fun. It's like saying America is great after walking down Madison Avenue. But I didn't want the film to end on a pessimistic note, and I don't think it does.
You mean with the shot of Dr. Ngor's wedding?
Yeah. Visually, the film ends with a photograph of Dr. Ngor's wedding party, and the sticky notes on top that specify if a person is still alive or how a person died, but the sticky notes slowly disappear, leaving them all in a better place at this wedding party. I wanted an emotional lift: Everybody is still alive, and whatever religion you are, you recognize they're in a good place. The music that closes the film is a beautiful love song by the Cambodian-American singer Bochen. She does a lot of rap tracks but has this one beautiful song that she re-recorded with Khmer lyrics. I wanted to end with a woman's voice, symbolically representing the love between Dr. Ngor and his wife. It's an emotional song and closes on a note of hope.
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Correction: A previous version said today was the 10th anniversary of Haing S. Ngor's murder. It is actually the 20th anniversary. We are bad at math.