Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Opening In Kuwait on Christmas Day

Sherman Oaks, California

Twentieth Century Fox today posted various international release dates for Baz Luhrman's epic Australia. It took me a moment to figure what "D. Republic" meant.

Pictured: A painting of Darwin Wharf in the 1930s by one of the film's conceptual artists.

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Monday, May 26, 2008

Keeping The Anglophilia Going For Another Post

Sherman Oaks, California

-- Brideshead Revisited opens in the United States on July 25, 2008.

-- Prince William is rumored to be on the verge of proposing to Kate -- now "Catherine" -- Middleton.

-- After a series of Labour defeats in local elections, the race for London Mayor and a recent contest to fill a vacant Parliamentary seat, party functionaries are considering asking Prime Minister Gordon Brown to resign in favor of 42-year-old Foreign Secretary David Miliband.

-- Peter Hitchens uses the phrase "the feral poor," while his Mail colleague Emily Andrews files a story that would never be published in a mainstream U.S. newspaper.


Sunday, May 25, 2008

"Australia" Opens November 14th in the United States

Sherman Oaks, California

The older, creakier Indiana Jones is OK, but the whip-wielding hero I've been waiting a year to see is known only as The Drover. Click here to watch Hugh Jackman do him justice.

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Saturday, May 17, 2008

Margaret Thatcher on Cambodia, 1988

Sherman Oaks, California

In 1988, the British television program Blue Peter broadcast a charitable drive for refugees from Cambodia. (The British referred to the country as Kampuchea, and the camps were, of course, in stable and accommodating Thailand.)

As part of the effort, Blue Peter presenter Caron Keating interviewed Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Keating also gave a summation of the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia and the relegation of Pol Pot to the outskirts of the country.

Blue Peter is a children's show.

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Thursday, May 15, 2008

"An Innocent European, Who Has Never Broken Laws, Committed Any Crimes, Or Overstayed His Visa, Is Being Held In A County Jail."

Sherman Oaks, California

Now we're imprisoning visitors from Italy for no coherent reason.

Judging from the New York Times article by Nina Bernstein, some Customs and Border Protection officers are falsely alleging that visitors to the U.S. have claimed asylum. Then the visitors -- whose real offense was probably contempt of cop -- are sent to the legal netherworld of alien processing.

When will U.S. citizens start protesting the thuggish behavior of our country's airport and border officers?

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The Prophesies of Pompeii

Sherman Oaks, California

My spider sense is telling me that this scene will be the key to the current season of Doctor Who.


Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Thailand: Doing The Right Thing

Sherman Oaks, California

Once again, the people and government of Thailand did the right thing. Once again, no one noticed.

In the wake of Cyclone Nargis, the Thais did everything they could to provide aid to their suffering Burmese neighbors. Putting historical animosity aside, the Thais allowed their country to be used as the staging ground for the United Nations, the Red Cross and dozens of non-governmental organizations. The Thais granted permission for foreign troops to operate on their soil, with U.S. military aircraft flying a relief mission out of U-Tapao Airbase. The Foreign Ministry provided back-channel communications between Western nations and the reclusive Burmese generals. The Royal Family’s foundations donated more than 10 tons of water purification tablets, foodstuffs, tents and clothing. A former prime minister led a delegation to Burma, seeking to persuade the generals to open their country to disaster relief. If the worst happens, Thailand will – as it has consistently done in modern times – suffer refugee camps on its borders. And all of this information is available because every major news organization on earth can and does operate freely in Thailand.

No one has commented on Thailand’s role, because people gossip about the bad neighbor who leaves trash on the lawn, not the good neighbor who clips the hedges every weekend.

So, to the Thai government and the Thai people: Thank you.

(Pictured: Royal Thai Air Force C-130 cargo planes, like the ones used by the Thai and U.S. militaries to deliver relief supplies.)

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Saturday, May 10, 2008

What Actually Happened In the French Embassy: Cambodia 1975

Sherman Oaks, California

[Spoilers: This post reveals the outcome of a pivotal sequence in the film The Killing Fields.]

As Knife Tricks readers know, the film The Killing Fields contains a suspenseful sequence in which the Western journalists -- Al Rockoff, Sydney Schanberg and Jon Swain -- attempt to forge a British passport for their Cambodian friend and colleague Dith Pran.

In the film, the plan fails. The photographers created a darkroom in a closet on the grounds of the French Embassy and tried to fix Pran's image on old photographic paper using pre-digital methods involving tubs of chemicals. Due to bad luck, shoddy materials and -- the film suggests -- Rockoff's incompetence, the plan failed to create a stable photographic image that would have fooled the Khmer Rouge, the rural Communists who now controlled the city.

In his magnificent book River of Time, reporter Jon Swain (played by Julian Sands in the movie) provides his eyewitness account of what happened:

“The French had already collected all our passports and at the Comité de la Ville’s request were making lists of all the people in the embassy. We had to try to keep Pran with us. Sydney was insistent. Although his family was safely out of Cambodia, having been evacuated with the Americans, Pran had stayed to help Sydney cover the city’s fall for the New York Times. Now it had all gone horribly wrong and Sydney felt overwhelming responsibility for his Cambodian assistant, reinforced by the fact that Pran, with his loyalty and quickness of mind, had saved all our lives.

“We could think of only one solution: to forge a second British passport I had and give it to Pran as his own. Armed with this and a new identity, we imagined he could stay with us. That he looked Asian was not an insurmountable barrier, for he could perhaps pass himself off as a Nepalese holder of a British passport. There was a similarity of features. It was a chance but it might work.

“There was no time to lose. Using a razor-blade, Al Rockoff scraped off my picture and replaced it with one of Pran. For glue, we used a gummy mixture of water and rice. More difficult was erasing my name. In the end we had to compromise: Pran became John Ancketill Brewer – my first three names. It was quite a mouthful to pronounce for a Briton, let alone a Cambodian turned Nepalese; he walked around the building repeating ‘John Ancketill Brewer’ until he was reasonably word perfect. Duly doctored, his British passport, number C352165, issued by the British embassy, Saigon, on 11 December 1973, was handed in to the consulate and we settled down to wait and hope.

“A little while later, a group of solemn-faced embassy officials came to see us. Shaking their heads sadly, they gave back my passport, saying it was a good try but they had seen through the forgery immediately. They imagined the Khmer Rouge would too. What would Pran do in a confrontation? Would he be able to bluff it out? The next few hours were a nightmare as we agonized what to do. In the end Pran took the decision for us.

“People were still leaving the city. We could see them toiling down the road outside, bedraggled and broken. But the numbers were dwindling. Pran decided the longer he was identified with foreigners in the embassy the tougher time he would have afterwards justifying himself to the Khmer Rouge. He would leave with the next batch of Cambodians who were even then packing their things in preparation for departure and try to make it across the border to Thailand.

“We said goodbye to Pran, with whom we had shared the bitterest and most frightening minutes of our lives. Sydney gave him a lot of money, several thousand dollars. We gave him the rest of our food. He wore his chroma over his shoulders. There was a profound silence. There were tears. He joined the other Cambodians at the embassy gates. The gates swung back and Pran and other Cambodians passed through, holding each other, trying to be brave, their belongings in the back of a Toyota pickup which they started to push down the road.

“He had taught us what friendship meant and when his luck ran out we had nothing to give him except money and food. Our abandonment of him confirmed in me the belief that we journalists were in the end just privileged passengers in transit through Cambodia’s landscape of hell. We were eyewitnesses to a great human tragedy none of us could comprehend. We had betrayed our Cambodian friends. We had been unable to save those who had saved us. We were protected simply because our skins were white. I felt ashamed."

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Friday, May 09, 2008

Radio: Broadcasting To My Homies

Sherman Oaks, California

I'm scheduled to appear on "The Kevin James Show" -- that would be the man with the haircut pictured to the left -- on Friday, May 9, 2008, during the 9 p.m. hour Pacific Time. The topic will be the obligations of U.S. travelers to abide by the immigration laws of the countries in which they are traveling, and the station is KRLA 870 AM Los Angeles, which you can listen to online here. As always, schedules can change quickly in the wild world of radio.


Wednesday, May 07, 2008

River of Time: A Magnificent Memoir of Terror, Sensuality and Loss

River of Time by Jon Swain (Heinemann 1995).

“I'm not gonna tell the story the way it happened. I'm gonna tell it the way I remember it.”

That is the first line from Alfonso Cuaron’s 1998 film adaptation of Great Expectations. It is also the principle propelling River of Time, reporter Jon Swain’s autobiography of his years covering the wars in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

“Memoir” comes from the French word for memory, and Swain plays a perfect note by writing a history of his feelings – toward war, toward journalism, toward Indochina, toward a beautiful, convent-educated South Vietnamese woman named Jacqueline who found herself on the wrong side of history.

Swain was drawn to foreign reporting by the adventure and was sustained by the camaraderie he found within his adopted tribe. “There was a lot of common ground as to why we were in Cambodia,” Swain writes of his fellow correspondents. “And it turned out that for most of us the enemy was not the deadly carnage in the Cambodian fields but the tedium of life itself; especially the perceived dreariness and conformity we had left behind in the West, to whose taboos and musty restrictions we dreaded having one day to return.”

Swain describes an almost-work-a-day routine of patrolling at dawn with soldiers, witnessing a firefight in the afternoon and enjoying the carnal comforts of East Asia as an evening reward for daytime bravery. “Amid the blood, mud and heartbreak of the battlefields, we all dreamt of savoring one delicious sensation: the moment when we would wake up, in safety, in Saigon, between clean sheets, with an exotic Vietnamese woman in our arms,” he remembers. “Sometimes we were lucky and savored a thrill utterly beyond the reach of our normal, daily, deadly world of war in the rice fields. Then, only then, did we know that we were truly alive, and perhaps the sensation gave some of us a glimpse into what Kipling meant when he wrote, ‘Eastern beds are softer.’”

Not everybody made it back to file their copy and photographs. Larry Burrows. Kent Potter. Henri Huet. Keisaburo Shimamota. All were journalists reporting one of the greatest stories of their time. All of them – and more than 300 others – died alongside the soldiers they were covering.

One of the survivors was Dith Pran. Swain, stringing for the London Sunday Times, worked with the Cambodian journalist and, in events made famous in the film The Killing Fields, Swain (played by actor Julian Sands) altered an extra passport of his in an attempt to convince authorities that Pran was a British subject. (The movie’s gripping darkroom scene is fiction. In reality, a pre-existing photo of Pran was slipped into the passport.)

Swain’s most daring literary choice was to avoid retelling the facts of the Indochinese wars. Hundreds of authors have explained what happened, cataloging the order of battle and the tonnage of bombs dropped on places like Quang Tri. River of Time is about the memories twenty years later:

“I got to know this grim area intimately, and especially during the eight-month battle for Quang Tri in the Easter 1972 communist offensive. I remember it now with nostalgia and a glint of terror. Sights and sounds spin through my head: patrols melting into the wilderness of misty rain like phantoms from the underworld; the belch of mortar rounds socking into the mud; straggly lines of refugees trudging down Highway One; dogs tearing at bodies; the constant rumble of artillery; brave smiles; helicopters against a darkening sky; the subdued moan of the wounded in the night; bullets everywhere.

“Who remembers it now?”

And how many people remember that, after the war ended, the oppression of many Vietnamese was so great that tens of thousands fled by water, the “boat people” who preferred the dangers of the sea and the uncertainty of refugee camps to life under the Communists? To these desperate families, the approach of a Thai fishing boat was a cause for hope and terror. The crew could be kindly, giving food and water. The crew could be monstrous, stealing the refugees’ belongings before raping the girls and killing them all. At least one boat of refugees descended into murder and cannibalism.

Swain saw it all. He was also kidnapped and held hostage for three months in Ethiopia. His relationship with Jacqueline fell apart because of his inability to lead a normal life. When Swain returned to Cambodia and Vietnam, he found that his world was gone, his native friends vanished and untraceable.

River of Time explains why men and women who carry notebooks and cameras, not guns, run off and go to war. Swain describes the narcotic pull of the foreign correspondent’s life, fueled in his case by adrenaline, opium and sex. He unhappily comes to understand the bitter, uneven bargain of wartime journalism: the locals who cater to the correspondents will be enriched, but, if their society collapses, the reporters will leave while their former friends and co-workers face the consequences.

“A couple of days later, I found my first real friend from the past,” Swain writes of his first post-war visit to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. “I found So Pheap. I was walking down the street near the post office and a woman in ragged black pyjamas stopped her bicycle in front of me and said shyly, ‘Jon, is it you?’ As I nodded and rushed over, I detected in her sad face a silent reproach. The Khmer Rouge had turned So Pheap from a delicate copper-skinned beauty into a rough peasant girl. Her hair was clipped short, her skin had coarsened in the sun, her rubber-sandalled feet were torn and her beautiful hands covered in sores. She was ringed by sorrow and quivered with emotion.

“ ‘Maman morte, bébé morte,’ she said, with a look of utter sadness. We arranged to meet later that evening outside the hotel. I hoped to be able to give her some money. But then my interpreter appeared, and she stiffened, gave me a last imploring glance and cycled away, terrified she would be denounced to the communist authorities for addressing a westerner. And though I searched and searched the streets of Phnom Penh for days afterwards, I never found her again.”

For reasons that I hope are now obvious, River of Time is one of the best books I’ve read in years.

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Thursday, May 01, 2008

Thirty-Three Years Ago Today