In this day and age of journalism, the journalistic perspective is so important.
On my recent trip to Tucson, Arizona, I had the joy of attending a screening and a discussion of the film The Killing Fields at the Loft Cinema. The Killing Fields is a film about New York Times journalist Sydney Schanberg and his interpreter, photojournalist Dith Pran. The movie is a Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the U.S. pullout from Vietnam in 1975 during the Cambodian Khmer Rouge regime. The film was followed by an on-stage discussion with former New York Times staffers Craig Whitney and Joe Sharkey.
According to Whitney, a former New York Times foreign correspondent and editor, the film shed light on an important asset to American journalists who were reporting overseas: interpreters.
“An interpreter is indispensable. Guys like Dith Pran are indispensable,” he said.
Sharkey, an American author and former columnist for The New York Times, and Whitney described the importance of interpreters to American journalists during the time of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime. According to Whitney, interpreters sacrificed their safety in order to help foreign correspondents get stories back to America. The film portrayed this when Pran chose to stay with Schanberg instead of leaving Cambodia with his family.
The film depicted how interpreters, like Dith Pran, were vital for dangerous negotiation situations that arose often.
“If you didn’t speak Khmer or Vietnamese you needed the help of someone who did to guide you in situations of extreme danger, like the ones in the movie,” Whitney said.
The Killing Fields depicted the danger journalists like Schanberg faced when reporting in other countries during times of conflict that journalists continue to face today. Translators, or “fixers” as described by Sharkey and Whitney, still hold a key role for foreign correspondents and their safety.
“Interpreters knew how to negotiate in dangerous situations and find out what the danger was and how not to get killed,” Whitney said.
The film also portrayed the unintended consequences the U.S. faced from entering foreign countries including the imprisonment of journalists. Whitney described the importance of Pran’s English and French skills, which in the movie helped with negotiating the release of imprisoned journalists.
In the discussion after the film, both Sharkey and Whitney agreed that in harsh situations when many journalists were jailed in foreign countries, and sometimes killed, interpreters were the most important assets. Fixers were especially important in situations, like the ones portrayed in the movie, where the U.S. made costly mistakes and it left journalists in hostile environments.
“There’s nothing you don’t owe them in situations like this,” Whitney explained. “And you only hope you can repay what they’re giving you in some small way.”