Haing Ngor: witness for Cambodia, champion for peace

The expatriate Cambodian actor, Dr. Haing S. Ngor, was killed violently on February 26, near his Los Angeles home. Through his art, Dr. Haing S. Ngor fulfilled an old Buddhist vow, to enlighten for the sake of all living things. Dr. Ngor believed he had been chosen by fate or "the gods" as an historical witness. He realized this mission in his first and defining role as Dith Pran, a Cambodian assistant to an American journalist Sydney Schanberg in "The Killing Fields" (1984), which will remain his legacy. Through this film, Haing Ngor eloquently gave eyes to a sightless world to see and know about the horrifying genocidal destruction of Cambodia during the 1970s.

Dr. Ngor won the 1985 Academy Award for best supporting actor in "The Killing Fields," but to call him a "supporting" actor is misleading. He was a powerful influence on the filmmakers to elevate the film higher than its war-time buddies context and turn it into a searing indictment of American foreign policy from 1969 to 1975 and the brutality of the Khmer Rouge that followed. Through his stunning performance, Haing Ngor completely overshadowed Sam Waterston, the nominal lead actor. One could even argue that the filmmakers deliberately understated Waterston's role. In a 1985 article that came out in Sight and Sound, director Roland Joffee said he deliberately chose Waterston over stronger lead actors like Al Pacino or Dustin Hoffman to "allow the limelight to shift...to a non-professional Cambodian actor," i.e., Haing Ngor.

The tragedy of Dr. Ngor's death is compounded because he was so much more than himself. In his memoir, Haing Ngor related his discovery, while studying the script of The Killing Fields that "I was Dith Pran." Indeed though the real Dith Pran now works successfully as a photojournalist for the New York Times, he is stamped on our consciousness by the persona of Haing Ngor. As Dith Pran, Haing Ngor was unique. No amateur actor ever had such a god-given role, or ever made so much of it. Never was there an actor who was also so consummate a critic and shaper of a film's dramatic and factual content. No actor ever brought such empathy to a role. Dr. Ngor had actually lived the role. Dith Pran and Dr. Ngor shared the same historical experiences and memories. Both had survived the genocidal village pest holes of terror, disease, starvation and death where millions of Cambodians died in the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Thus, Dr. Ngor made the movie about two relatively insignificant men into a powerful historical testament.

Such a memorable first success rendered all of Haing Ngor's subsequent film work anticlimactic. Who now remembers his marginal roles in "Vietnam Texas," "Iron Triangle," "My Life" or even his dignified support role Phung Thi Le Ly's father in Oliver Stone's "Heaven and Earth"? One could argue that Haing Ngor continued to accept these small acting parts not because he aspired to great acting but because they supplied the money and leisure to continue his primary life mission as a witness for Cambodia. In the dozen years left to him after "The Killing Fields," Haing Ngor did what he could for individual Cambodians in the United States and for peace in Cambodia as it wrenched itself from the "hell on earth" the Vietnamese described when they invaded Cambodia late in 1978, through the despised Vietnamese occupation to the fragile and insecure truce of the past few years.

Dr. Ngor was a gentle, humorous and generous man. In 1990, he agreed to join Dith Pran in Buffalo for a conference called "Children of Crisis" that was co-sponsored by UB and the Buffalo Public Schools. For no more than his food and lodging, he stayed three days, lecturing at UB and in Buffalo and counseling individual Cambodian Americans. In private he was a delightful screwball wit. When he spoke about Cambodia's recent past, however, his warmth and gentleness dissolved into a furious, barely controlled rage. As with all his countrymen who lived through the Killing Fields, the pain of overwhelming personal loss and suffering was deeply etched in his face and was a poignant reminder to us all, how lucky we are to be alive.

Haing Ngor's death is truly heartbreaking. Haing Ngor, the people of Cambodia, the people of the world, deserve better than this.

Charles L. Bland

University Advising Office

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