It Was Mother

It Was In

It Was In
Wayras Olivier
MAY 2018

I N MOST CASES it is justified to prescribe John Lennon’s “Imagine” to a temporarily despondent and discouraged mind. A life with no personal possessions and no religion is just an idea, a painkiller with zero side effects. But kept from the dear listener are the near-permanent side effects of this nostrum which, when taken orally, create mass hunger and mob genocide. Khieu Samphan, for instance, was one such pill-maker. A PhD graduate from the Sorbonne in Paris, he encapsulated his idea for agrarian socialism and imported his nightmare into Cambodia as a dream in the late 1950s, and was only just recently convicted for his involvement in setting up the ideological preconditions for Pol Pot’s murderous Khmer Rouge.

These ideological preconditions, are shown in Roland Joffe’s exceptional 1984 film The Killing Fields like this: Our attention is called to the truckloads of militia transiting through the streets of Phnom Penh, signaling an end to the country’s nearly ten-year civil war, in 1975. Relieved that the militia are waving white flags, Cambodian journalist Dith Pran (Haing S. Ngor), is unaware, as is his American correspondent Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterston) that the militia are indeed forcing the city’s residents to the bucolic outskirts of Cambodia for Year Zero.

Those who failed to circumvent Year Zero, such as Pran, were intellectually neutered and cattled into slave labour in the fields, where “they tell us that God is dead,” Pran recounts in voiceover, “…and now the party they call Angka will provide everything for us.” Learning to toe the line, as it were, reaches its darkest apogee in one chilling scene when a soulless yet fervent child (children understandably are the most valuable to the party) marches to a chalkboard and crosses out a stick drawing of a family. “We must be like the Ox,” Pran continues, “and have no thought except for the party. No love but for the Angka. People starve but we must not grow food. We must honour the comrade children whose minds are not corrupted by the past.”

The Killing Fields signaling—however likely unintentional—release year: 1984, is itself an admonition against the bliss and comfort that is promised in utopia. Orwell himself understood the all too familiar ideas that create the pretext for atrocities “Collectivism,” he once stated, “leads to concentration camps, leader worship, and war.”

It’s debatable whether director Roland Joffe was playing the role of provocateur or amateur when he chose Lennon’s “Imagine” to play over the end credits of The Killing Fields. If the latter were true then the director is ending his own film by announcing to his audience that he is drowsy and tone deaf. Pran escaping the fields and being reunited with Schanberg, his American ally, is not only a true story but a saccharin one that suffers at the hands of its own bathos if we are seriously being asked to associate such a reunion between two estranged friends with Lennon’s idealistic vision for a future without class and borders.

If, on the other hand, the former were true, and Joffe indeed was playing the role of provocateur then Lennon pays off brilliantly as a homophone, as there is an unmistakable and ironical concordance between the lyrics of “Imagine” and the turmoil created by the anthemic ideas penned by the other civic-minded Lenin.