Interview with Filmmaker Arthur Dong

By Yvonne Lim Wilson

Arthur Dong is a veteran filmmaker producing, writing, directing and editing independent social issue documentaries for more than 30 years. His latest film, “The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor,” is based on the autobiography of Dr. Haing S. Ngor, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia who also won an academy award for his role in the 1984 film “The Killing Fields.”

Asian Austin caught up with Dong after a recent screening in Lowell, Massachusets. Lowell, about an hour outside of Boston, is home to the second highest population of Cambodian Americans in the country. Dong talked about the reception from the Lowell screening and Cambodian American crowd, as well as more about the film.

“The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor” is the centerpiece film in the upcoming Austin Asian American Film Festival, Nov. 12 – 17.

AA: For you, why was it important to make this film now?
AD: On a basic level it was my next project. The why is personal and the why is political; they are intertwined. When I choose a project, many things go through my head. The criteria in my head are: one, a compelling emotional human experience told by a person’s life; two, what does this say about the world we live in? I read this article in 2010 [that] said Dr. Ngor was murdered because he was on “The Killing Fields.” This opened up a can of worms, a lot of questions. If you talk to members of the Cambodian Long Beach community, they never believed it was a simple robbery. I picked up [Dr. Ngor’s] autobiography and I couldn’t put it down. The way it was written was the way I enjoy making and watching films: the story of a person’s life is informed by what is going on around them.

AA: Why is it important for people to learn about Cambodia and how does the story impact us as Americans today?
AD: I’m guilty of the same of many Americans who saw “The Killing Fields” in 1984 and thought I know all there is about Cambodia, happy ending, story done, let’s move on. It was [Dr. Ngor’s] quest to get the story out there and let people know that it’s not over. There’s a lot of political issues, corruption and issues people need to be aware of. As Americans it seems we were focused on the Vietnam War, and Cambodia was treated like collateral damage, something to be forgotten. At the screening people were wondering, why has America forgotten Cambodia? It relates to what’s happening in the Middle East. It’s a reflection of forgotten responsibilities.

AA: What was the reception like in Lowell?
AD: A good portion of audience were survivors of the genocide as well as their offspring. I wanted to present the film to them. It was gratifying. I recognize it’s an important chapter in history and deeply personal for the survivors of this genocide. For them to watch and say, “yeah this is what happened.” People are in a healing process, and it’s far from over.

AA: I think it’s important what you said about it being a healing process. Your film, in showing what happened, can be a part of that process.
AD: The Japanese American internment camps where the victims and survivors didn’t talk about it, they tried to forget about it. They would keep it from their children to prove they were American and patriotic, but it had a great psychological toll. It wasn’t until the ’70s and ‘80s that the younger generation demanded that they talk about it, and they started coming out with their stories. It seems to be a similar process with the generation of Cambodian Americans here. Their parents are not quite open about talking. It was one of the goals we had with the film.

AA: In researching the story and creating the documentary, what was one thing you were surprised to find?
AD: The most striking component of the story that I felt compelled to bring out was the love story between Dr. Ngor and his wife. The film was wrapped around the love for his wife and how she inspired him to go on, to live and have a purpose. It’s a beautiful love story between him and [his wife] Huoy but on a political level it’s love story between him and Cambodia; it goes hand in hand.

AA: What were some of challenges in researching this documentary?
AD: To visualize the story. I chose to tell the story as told by Dr. Ngor. It was written first person, his autobiography. I wanted to keep to that personal way of exploring this life. The idea I had was to pretend that he was my Uncle sitting by the fireside, and he would tell his life story. The challenge I had was to visualize this narrative which I pulled from his 500 page book. I used animated scenes and it was very liberating to me as a filmmaker. I told my animators, ‘Take us out of this world – let’s ride in the clouds for this.’ The exhilaration and challenge was finding visual material for the film.

AA: What would you like people to learn about Dr. Ngor as a person and survivor?
AD: Here’s a doctor who became a social worker in America, an actor – the only Asian male who ever got an Oscar – and he chose to serve the community. His quest for social justice for a cause that no one cared or knew about. The money he made in subsequent acting roles all went into his activism work to open orphanages, schools, rescue camps, to give aid. He would call his agent to find a part to help the orphanages. He lived in a  regular apartment in Chinatown. He could have had a more luxurious space, but he dedicated his life and career to helping his wife and country.

AA: What’s next for you?
AD: Twenty years ago I received an NEA grant to interview tap dancing masters in 1995. We interviewed more than 25 masters of tap from the Golden Era. They are wonderful interviews and we were very fortunate to get these interviews; most of them have passed on now. When I finished the Dr. Ngor film I said, “Let’s get on that.”  I was just appointed Distinguished Professor in Film at Loyola Marymount University. I am attending an award ceremony; I am receiving the American book award for Forbidden City. I’m a filmmaker, not a writer. I did it out of pure passion. It was wonderful to be recognized for it.

Originally published October 2015

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