Roland Joffe's 1984 film was one of those productions that come along every once in a while and are labeled "important" almost from the time they're greenlit. Few actually live up to that title but "The Killing Fields" is one. I've tried for a long time to put my finger on why it works and the best I can come up with is that it goes where no one (in Hollywood) had dared to go before: into the lives of the locals. It's as though "Lawrence of Arabia" didn't follow Lawrence back to Cairo after the fall of Aquaba but instead stayed behind to tell the tale of the Arabs as they struggled to find common cause and inspiration in a victory few of them actually cared about at the time. This is not a knock on Lawrence of Arabia by any stretch. It remains one of the great motion pictures ever made. It is simply to try and make the point that by staying behind after all the white guys left The Killing Fields strays into territory that makes it more than a simple night at the movies. The real story of the tragedy that was Cambodia in the 70s and 80s is not one of drunken journalist from the US and Europe escaping by the hair of their chinny-chin-chins. It's a tale of a revolution gone horribly wrong and the imposition of a modern day reign of terror that made the original French version seem like a walk in the park. This is not a story that can be told by looking through the eyes of Sidney Schanberg or any of the other journalists who were there for the fall but absent for the disintegration.

For the Cambodian people there would be no one coming over the hill to save them for years, (until Vietnam invaded and sent the Khmer rats scurrying back into the jungle). They were on their own against some of the worst humankind has to offer and in that disintegrated world Dith Pran (played brilliantly by Dr Haing S. Ngor), bereft of his western sponsors, is as powerless as any other Cambodian citizen to stop the hemorrhaging. He must forage for compassion, put out the lightest of feelers for spiritual connection and stay strong while those around him do their utmost to tear him down. The Khmer Rouge said they were starting over again with the year 0, and it only seems fitting. What other number would suffice to describe a world shorn of cultural touchstones and family ties, where history and education were dirty words, countless numbers were worked to death and heavily armed children were encouraged to pass snap judgements on people they didn't know. This was nihilism on an institutional level not seen since the Holocaust and Joffe bravely attempts to confront it by following Pran through a largely wordless hell.

It is a story that can only be told effectively through the use of the camera, where minute gestures or facial expressions can spell the difference between life and death, and Joffe seems to instinctively understand this. He doesn't pad out Pran's story with clumsy exposition. The dread is in the silence. Hearing is used only to ingest propaganda or to listen for predators. Speaking is prohibited. If you don't know how to observe your chances of survival are slim at best. So, like the people he's chronicling Joffe observes and we observe along with him and them and in the end we find that words come hard when trying to explain what happened and, more importantly, why and how. Only that it did and that if people hadn't kept their eyes open to the horror unfolding around them and remembered what they saw there's a chance no one on the outside would have ever known what really occurred.

Maybe that's the lesson of The Killing Fields: don't look away. Don't ever look away.