The journalist Dith Pran died today, which means that both the Pol Pot survivor and his filmic alter ego Haing Ngor are now gone.
For most of us kids who were 12 at the same time as River Phoenix and Wil Wheaton, our first "R"-rated movie before Stand By Me tended to be something like the uncut version of Excalibur. For me it was The Killing Fields.
This was the film that, more than Red Dawn or Rambo II, defined communism for me, growing up as an Estonian-American. I was aware that in 1949, Estonia experienced its own variation on the Cambodian nightmare. I identified strongly with Holocaust films as well, of which there were too many to list, but in some sense the Cambodian story was even closer to home because the evil was perpetrated purely on ideological grounds.
I may not have known what a sanitary napkin was (which John Malkovich is using as a clean cold compress for a hangover at the beginning of the movie, before everything goes to hell) but I knew what the field of skulls meant.
Pran's 40-mile trek to freedom in Thailand, the forced labour fields, the killing fields, the desperate failed attempt to get Pran out of the country by official channels...these are all indelible images.
This is a movie self-assured anough to use "Imagine" in the soundtrack -- usually thought of as more of a hippie Vietnam-era anthem -- in its pure sense, without any appeasement agenda.
Just over 59 years ago, on March 25, Estonia experienced its own killing fields, in a variation on the Cambodian and Chinese versions that could be just as brutal. Tens of thousands of Estonian families were deported to Siberia, in a strange collectivist agricultural paroxysm that took place ostensibly in peacetime. Rural people were singled out, subjected to a witch hunt, with confessions of being a "kulak" extorted, and then deported.
Reconciliation and healing are only one part of the picture. As far as the truth goes, it might be fitting to remember the words of author, publicist and freedom fighter Enn Sarv, a victim of a 1944 deportation, who died this week at 87: “One thing is clear: in the future as well, the occupation must be termed an occupation, the deeds of those who committed inhumane acts must be punished and Estonia's independence and continuity as a state dating from 1918 must be preserved, unwaveringly.”