The Killing Fields (1984)

Hard to say why I didn’t like the The Killing Fields despite the fact that War and Journalism is a topic that I find fascinating and that this movie is considered to be one of the best of the genre. One of the problems I had was the length. The other one was the score. That’s such a dated score, it ruined the movie to a large extent.

The Killing Fields is based on a true story and one of the first movies whose topic was the genocide of Cambodian people by Pol Pot. The two journalists Sydney Schanberg and Dith Pran have been covering the war in Cambodia since the early 70s. They are not only dedicated journalists but close friends. Pran serves as interpreter on their missions.

In 1975 when the United States withdraw from the country and the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, advance on Phnom Penh, Pran, as a US sympathizer is in great danger. There was a moment when he and Syd could have left the country easily but things have developed too fast and now it’s hardly possible for anyone but US and European citizens to leave the country.

Knowing what would happen to Pran if he stayed, Syd and some fellow journalist try to forge a US passport for him. Unfortunately the attempt fails and while his children and his wife have been able to fly out, Pran is left behind when the other journalists leave. Captured by the Khmer Rouge he is brought to a labour camp.

In the second half the movie moves back and forth between a guilt-ridden Syd in the US, and Pran’s ordeal in the Cambodian labour camp. In imaginary letters that he writes to Syd in his head, he tells him what happens, interprets what we see. I’m not sure if this was a problem of my DVD but none of the parts spoken in Khmer have been subtitled.

The parts in the labour camp are very well done. This isn’t only a labour camp. The labourers and especially the children are re-educated and brainwashed. They have to unlearn everything that they knew before. It’s of great danger to have “forbidden” knowledge, like foreign languages or any higher education. The children are easily turned into little fanatics and the grownups who are afraid of being executed try their best to obey.

The Pol Pot regime was a systematic genocide and far over 2 million people were killed. Even though I didn’t particularly like it, I must admit the movie has its merits. And the Cambodian actor, Haing S. Ngor gave a very touching and convincing performance.

Shooting Dogs aka Beyond the Gates (2005) An Unspairing Look at the Genocide in Rwanda

What a shocking movie. Incredibly good but so sad. I have seen the outstanding Hotel Rwanda a few years back but Shooting Dogs, that is less flawless from a cinematographic point of view, is even better. It is a UK/German co-production starring German, British and African actors.

The story, that is based on true events, takes place in a school compound in 1994. A young British teacher (Hugh Dancy) and an elderly British priest, father Christopher, (John Hurt), are responsible for the school. It is a school to which as well Hutu as Tutsi children come. Early on arrives a troop of UN soldiers who also stay inside the school gates while outside the world as they know it falls apart.

The beginning of the movie is slow and shows with great detail the almost idyllic, if somewhat chaotic life in the city of Kigali, in Rwanda. The moment the Hutu president is killed, the situation changes drastically. The Hutu majority fears that the Tutsi minority wants to overthrow their government and be in charge of Rwanda again. Out of fear and wanting to control a situation that gets out of hands they start what can only be called a genocide. They systematically kill every Tutsi that they can find. To say they “kill” them is an understatement and gives the wrong impressions of the atrocities that happened in Rwanda. The people are not only killed, they are butchered with machetes. Old people, young people, men, women, children and even babies are literally chopped up.

The courageous priest opens up the gate and lets a few thousand Tutsi find refuge inside of the school gates. They are guarded by the UN who are only spectators in what becomes more and more atrocious. They have a very strict mandate which states that they are not allowed to intervene. They watch the butchery without doing anything. Only if they were shot at, would they be allowed to act. The commanding officer (Dominique Horwitz who has an outstanding role in Stalingrad) is helpless and ashamed but there is nothing he can do. The irony is, if the events would be called “genocide”, he would be free of his mandate and could intervene. But no one officially calls it a genocide.

In the beginning we do not see many of the horrible acts but towards the end the movie gets more and more graphic and I could feel the fear that these hordes must have instilled in those threatened by them. They seem so mindless. A mass of violent men, slaughtering, raping and butchering innocent people. And no one helped the Tutsi.

There is a scene that I found particularly profound in which a journalist, talking to the teacher, compares her reaction to the horrors in Bosnia with her reaction to those she sees here. She explains that she cried all the time in Bosnia when she saw dead people but that she was somewhat unfazed by the dead in Rwanda. The young teacher argues that she is probably numbed but she admits that it is more awful than that. “No,” she says. ” It is worse than that. I constantly think, they are only dead Africans.” This is such a shocking confession but how true. I wonder how often Europeans and Americans did think like that during the war. “It’s only Africans”.

When things get worse, the French Army sends soldiers to get the Europeans out of the compound and to the airport. The priest and the young teacher stay until the UN troops get the order to leave as well. At that moment the teacher leaves but father Christopher stays.

This movie is really highly watchable. It is sad and moving and the most touching is that the people who took part in the making, the people in charge of costumes and the settings, the electricians and carpenters, were all Rwandans who lost most of their familiy members in this genocide in which far over 800 000 people were killed.

This is one of the saddest chapters in the history of the 20th century. It should not be forgotten. There is no such thing as “only Africans”.

This movie saddened me a great deal and left me speechless for a long while.

Katyn (2007) or The Crime and the Lie about a Gruesome Massacre on Polish Officers

This is an outstanding movie. Truly outstanding from every possible point of view. Narrative style, cinematography, actors, story, technical aspects. Absolutely great.

The Polish movie Katyn is about the massacre of some 22000 Polish officers by the Russian army and the subsequent  disposal of their bodies in the Katyn forest in 1940. Once the mass grave is found in 1943 the so-called Katyn list is established.  After having waited anxiously for the return of their fathers, husbands, sons and brothers the families are now informed if or if not their loved ones have been among the victims. However not all the victims are on the list. Many more a still missing and may or may not have been murdered. Many wives still wait for their husbands in 1945.

The movie focuses on two families. One is the family of a Polish General, the other the family of a Polish officer. The story is told in two sequences. The first half tells the story until the massacre, the second tells the story of the lie and ends again with the massacre but this time shown much more explicitly (The way these murders were executed…How can people do this to people?). After the first half we think the story should be over but in reality it only just begins. Seeing it first from the point of view of the victims, we are then guided towards the point of view of the families who wait for them. Their ordeal is a different but very cruel one. Even though everybody knows who killed those officers, officially it is said to have been a massacre committed by the Germans. To say otherwise would be very dangerous. The political climate of the time that made it impossible to even mention a critical view of this incident until 1989 is palpable in all its atrocity.

On my DVD of this movie is an interview with the Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda. He tells the interviewer how difficult it was to make this movie. He didn´t know how to tell the story. Should he tell his father´s story, who had been among those officers, or his mother´s who was one of those who did not give up hope until 1945. He decided eventually to tell both stories, juxtapose them, have one mirror the other. This is very skillfully done. Wajda belongs to the so-called Polish Film School and has made many movies, two of his better known earlier ones also deal with WWII:  A Generation aka Pokolenie (1955) and Kanal (1957) about the Uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto.

This film is truly the work of a master, of someone who does not just deliver a story but who weaves it carefully, adding symbolism and criticism alike. And  still it is highly watchable.