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They were the vast open spaces of swamp and plains where millions of Cambodians were taken to be executed under the regime of Cambodia's then dictator, Pol Pot. Pot's regime, the Khmer Rouge, ran thousands of "re-education" camps throughout the Cambodian countryside where citizens were taken to be indoctrinated with the belief system of the new government. As a result, millions of innocent people, many of them intelligent and intellectual, even if they accepted the new regime, were killed by the child armies of Pot's forces. Their bodies were left to rot, depicted in the scene where Pran sees them while trying to escape.
Small plastic bags were used to kill those people. Instead of using bullets or another method of execution, the Khmer Rouge used the bags to asphyxiate the victims, which were a way to kill someone cheaply and quietly. There's a scene in the rice field where a guy near Pran is being taken away by a little girl. You will briefly see her placing a plastic bag over the victim's head.
Pran was an intelligent member of the Cambodian middle class who was also fluent in both French and English. The Khmer Rouge, in their forceful attempts to seize power in Cambodia, saw all intelligent, intellectual people as a threat to their new order. Intellectuals have long been at the forefront of any opposition to totalitarian government - think of the Jews that were exterminated by the Nazis. If the Rouge discovered that Pran had the potential to be among the opposition, they'd have him killed immediately.
The children of the Pol Pot regime were so very highly valued because they would be the future leaders of Cambodia. They were recruited (or stolen from their parents, who were subsequently murdered) because their minds were not, at least in the view of the Rouge, corrupted by the knowledge that comes with adulthood. Therefore, they made excellent subjects to be indoctrinated from an early age with the teachings of the Khmer regime. There's a brief scene of a young kid who desecrates a chalkboard image of a family. Under the Rouge, families were not allowed to exist, all education and upbringing were to be done by the Rouge leadership. Essentially, the Rouge and Pol Pot wanted a nation of citizens who would follow orders unquestioningly and be free of individual thought that could prove dangerous to the new order.
Yes, Neak Leung is a real place about 38 miles southeast of the capital, Phnom Pehn, and it was actually bombed by American forces in August 1973. In the opening of the film, Sid Schanberg complains about his plane being delayed in Bangkok (the capital of neighboring Thailand). His suspicion is that the Army delayed his plane deliberately to keep him from investigating the bombing before there was a chance to secure the area. More info about the village and the bombing can be read here.
People worked more than 8 hour a day and must met the requirement 3 tons of rice per hectare. However, the food they got was water-porridge (if you are lucky enough you will find 3 or 4 rice in your porridge). This led people in Khmer Rouge beside member of "Ang Ka" always in starvation. Therefore, in order to survive they must eat anything they could find. You can also see the scene where Pran caught the lizard and put in his pocket (he will eat it after the announcement).The effect seen in the film was done by placing large leather collars over the necks of the cows. Inside the collars were sacs that held bags of fake blood. When Ngor sliced thru the leather he'd pierce the sac & the fake blood would flow.
The real Dith Pran survived the Cambodian Genocide but later divorced his wife and died of cancer in 2008. He authored a number of books recounting the harrowing ordeal. Sydney Schanberg authored books as well, remained a friend of Dith Pran, but died in 2016 of a heart attack.
In the film, Sydney's cameraman confronts him in the bathroom believing that Sydney knew of the dangers of not evacuating Pran before the Genocide, and also believing that Sydney kept Pran with him on purpose because he wanted to stay and cover the story in order to enhance his reporting reputation. Later on, while visiting Pran's wife in her apartment, Sydney confesses that he never really got into a serious discussion with Pran about leaving the country despite evacuating his family, and that he really did want a journalism award, but that he never anticipated Pran actually getting harmed whilst remaining in Cambodia.
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