An American Abroad

My Hanoi Hilton Photos in a Documentary

Two months ago, I received an email from Colin Kimball, a photographer working with the Collin County Historical Society & Museum in McKinney, Texas, on an exhibit about people from their region who’d served in the Vietnam War. The exhibit was called The Vietnam Syndrome and was to include a video built around interviews with two men from North Texas who’d been prisoners of war in North Vietnam. Mr. Kimball wanted to use my photos of the Hanoi Hilton to illustrate their stories. Of course I said yes.

The resulting video, Life as a Prisoner of War in Vietnam, is now on display. My photos, taken from this post here, can be seen at the 3:03, 7:10, and 9:47 marks.

Ksar Ait Ben Haddou

I didn’t do my usual pre-departure research before coming to Morocco. I was so involved with planning my trip to Sri Lanka and Thailand, with packing up my life in Tunisia, and with saying goodbye to all my friends there that I arrived in Morocco without my usual must-see list. So it was wholly by accident that as we drove from Zagora to back to Marrakech we stumbled into Ksar Ait Ben Haddou, a UNESCO World Heritage Site I hadn’t even heard of.



We were here:

The ksar dates from the 17th century and was a stopping point on the trade route from Sudan to Marrakech. It’s a small settlement that sits on a hill above a small river bed. It was definitely built to be defended, with narrow streets, numerous bottlenecks, and a fortress at the very top.

















The place seemed oddly familiar to me. After my visit, I found out why. Ksar Ait Ben Haddou has been used as the setting for many films, including Game of Thrones, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, The Wind and the Lion, Gladiator, and Lawrence of Arabia.

There is a newer town built next to the old ksar. On the way to it, I indulged my strange fascination for old weird French cars.


The new town was nice, too. We ate lunch looking out over the old ksar.



We then pressed on to Marrakech, just barely arriving at the train station in time to catch the last train to Fes.

Marrakech: The Man Who Ate Too Much

Usually when my son and I go cheap when we travel together. We stay at hostels and guesthouses. We look for inexpensive restaurants where the locals eat. We take buses instead of planes. This enables to go further on our dollar and puts us in closer contact with more interesting people. We’ve met fascinating fellow travelers at the places we’ve stayed and learned a lot about local mores by people-watching at popular local restaurants.

But sometimes we splurge. And on our first night in Marrakech, we splurged on dinner at the Restaurant Dar Es Salaam. This place was made famous in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1956 film of The Man Who Knew Too Much.

The entrance was grand, a beautifully tiled stairway leading down toward a fountain.


We headed down a hallway to the dining rooms.


We passed by the room where Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day ate in the movie.

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Spencer and I didn’t have our dinner in that room, but the room we ate in was no less elegant.


I ordered way too much food, a lamb dish and a chicken tagine. After I had eaten way more than I should have, the entertainment began with music.





Then there was a belly dancer with a flaming candelabra balanced on her head.




She was followed by another dancer.





It was a great evening. A little touristy, a little chiché, but fun.


Kairouan is either the third or the fourth holiest site in Islam, depending on whom you talk to. (Question: who compiles rankings like this? How many cities are so ranked?) The town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Like Matmata, it’s a Tunisian town with a George Lucas connection; the “Cairo” scenes in Raiders of the Lost Ark were filmed there. I did not shoot any knife-wielding locals (although some of the touts came close to deserving it).

I took a louage there yesterday, accompanied by three good friends. We were here:

Our first stop was the Great Mosque of Sidi-Uqba, which dates from the Ninth Century. Two of the friends with me were women who generally did not wear headscarves. At the door to the mosque, they were requested to cover their heads as a sign of respectful dress. One of my friends complied, taking one of the scarves that hung by the door and wrapping it very loosely over her head. The other refused as a matter of principle and didn’t join us at the mosque. I could see her point, though having just been required to wear a sarong to cover my knees before entering a Buddhist temple in Sri Lanka, I understand the need to balance core personal beliefs against the demands of a religious society.

Like many mosques I have seen, the Great Mosque presents a fairly spare exterior. The interior spaces I could see were richly carpeted and had large chandeliers. Verses from the Qur’an were inscribed on the walls.

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After the mosque, I went rug shopping. What can I say? Academics love rugs. From the roof of the merchant’s shop where I bought two beautiful Berbers, I looked out into the medina and the surrounding town.

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After rug shopping, we walked around the medina.

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Our final stop was the Mausoleum of Sidi Sahab, generally known as the Mosque of the Barber. There was some gorgeous tile work there.

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Looking for Luke Skywalker

On the train ride south, it seemed like someone was dialing back the saturation levels in my mind’s-eye Photoshop every ten kilometers. Eventually the landscape was simply tan and even things that were nominally green — a few palm trees, some scrub plants — seemed to be some undifferentiated dark color. We were getting near the desert. It was cold outside and the heat was on in the train.

After four hours, we got to Gabès, the end of the line for Tunisian passenger trains. I bargained a ride to Matmata from a Berber in a Peugeot. En route he stopped at a bakery for a box of macaroons. He had perfect Crayola crayon brown skin and wore a rough wool djellaba with a pointed hood.

At my request, the driver took me to the Hotel Sidi Driss, which in its Hollywood incarnation had been Luke Skywalker’s boyhood home on Tatooine, back when he lived with his Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen.





There were two camels parked out front of the hotel, whom I mentally named R2D2 and C3PO. The location was actually a troglodyte pit dwelling that’s native to this part of southern Tunisia. The Star Wars set dressers had added some pipes and vaguely sci-fi doodads, some of which are still in place. But age and neglect have taken their toll. The paint was peeling, the seams were showing, and without the Lucasfilm movie magic the place seemed a little forlorn.

I decided not to stay at the Sidi Driss. Luke had checked out long ago, and the rooms were shared dormitory-style affairs, crammed full of small uncomfortable-looking beds. That didn’t bother me as much as the fact that there was no heat in the underground rooms. I didn’t fancy freezing.

I walked around the place and kept running into a young woman from Kyoto who seemed just pleased as punch to be there. Such is the power of American pop culture. She and I were the only tourists there; January is very much the off-season in the desert.

I was here:

Watching carefully for Tusken raiders and Jawas, I explored the surrounding area on foot. Guidebooks describe the terrain as “lunar,” but to me it looked like a huge construction site, as if some divine Caterpillar had gouged deep furrows in the land and piled up rocks and soil here and there.






After hiking around for a while, I worked up an appetite and headed to a roadside cafe. I’m not sure what Luke would have eaten, but I had some grilled chicken and a Celtia beer.


My Films of 2014

Here’s what I watched in 2014. Those with an asterisk were reruns for me.

20 Feet from Stardom (2013)

A Hard Day’s Night (1964)*

Agora (2009)

All Is Lost (2013)

Banlieue 13 (2004)

Buried (2010)

Captain Phillips (2013)

Crossroads (1986)*

Diamonds are Forever (1971)*

Easy Rider (1969)*

Encounters at the End of the World (2007)

Enemy (2013)

Escape Plan (2013)

État de Siège (1972)

FDR: American Badass (2012)

Get On Up (2014)

God Loves Uganda (2013)

Godzilla (2014)

GoldenEye (1995)*

Harry, un Ami Qui Vous Veut du Bien (2000)

Haute Tension (2003)*

Help! (1965)*

Holy Motors (2012)*

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)*

Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)*

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)*

It Might Get Loud (2008)

L’Armée des Ombres (1969)

L’Ennui (1998)

L’Image Manquante (2013)

Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life (2003)

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001)*

Lady Sings the Blues (1972)

Le Pacte des Loups (2001)*

Le Salaire de la Peur (1953)

Le Temps du Loup (2003)

Les Rivières Pourpres (2000)*

Les Rivières Pourpres 2 – Les Anges de l’Apocalypse (2004)

Live Nude Girls Unite! (2000)

Mission Impossible 4 – Ghost Protocol (2011)

Muscle Shoals (2013)*

Ne le Dis à Personne (2006)*

Need for Speed (2014)

Night of the Living Dead (1968)*

OSS 117: Le Caire, Nid d’Espions (2006)*

Particle Fever (2013)

S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2003)

Seven Days in May (1964)*

Skyfall (2012)*

Snowpiercer (2013)

Star Trek: First Contact (1996)*

Strange Days (1995)

Swimming Pool (2003)*

Swimming to Cambodia (1987)*

Taxi to the Dark Side (2007)

The Andromeda Strain (1971)*

The Beach (2000)*

The Commitments (1991)*

The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969)*

The Fugitive (1993)*

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

The Ice Storm (1997)

The Imitation Game (2014)

The Killing Fields (1984)

The Most Secret Place on Earth (2009)

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1965)

The Taqwacores (2010)

The Two Faces of January (2014)

Traitor (2008)

Tsunami: Caught on Camera (2009)

Une Liaison Pornographique (1999)

Une Vie de Chat (2010)

Weekend (1967)

Year Zero: The Silent Death of Cambodia (1979)

Z (1969)*

Cineprepping for Cambodia

I’ll be traveling to Cambodia and Laos at the end of this month. To get ready, I’ve held my own private film festival; call it cineprepping.

There aren’t very many movies about Laos. Fittingly, the only one I could find is called The Most Secret Place on Earth. There are, however, enough films about Cambodia to give me a sense of how that country is viewed in the Anglo-American pop cultural imagination. And now there are some native Cambodian entries in the genre which, naturally, have different foci.

The Cambodia movies focus primarily on the nightmarish reign of the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979; secondly on the role of the American government in paving the way for the Khmer Rouge’s rise to power; and thirdly on the failure of America and the European powers to provide humanitarian aid once Vietnam finally drove the Khmer Rouge from power. In short, it’s grim viewing and I’m going to need a vat of Zoloft and some Marx Brothers comedies to recover my usual good humor. “The feel-good movie of the year” has yet to be made about Cambodia.

All three of these aspects of recent Cambodian history are presented in Year Zero: The Silent Death of Cambodia, which was made by Anglo-Australian journalist John Pilger in 1978. Pilger makes no secret of where the responsibility for the deaths of between 1 and 2 million Cambodians lies. In describing his movie, he writes:

Year Zero not only revealed the horror of the Pol Pot years, it showed how Richard Nixon’s and Henry Kissinger’s ‘secret’ bombing of that country had provided a critical catalyst for the rise of the Khmer Rouge. It also exposed how the West, led by the United States and Britain, was imposing an embargo, like a medieval siege, on the most stricken country on earth. This was a reaction to the fact that Cambodia’s liberator was Vietnam – a country that had come from the wrong side of the Cold War and that had recently defeated the US. Cambodia’s suffering was a willful revenge. Britain and the US even backed Pol Pot’s demand that his man continue to occupy Cambodia’s seat at the UN, while Margaret Thatcher stopped children’s milk going to the survivors of his nightmare regime.

Pilger’s documentary was never shown in the US, but after it aired in the UK, viewers there sent over ₤45 million in aid to Cambodian relief efforts. The film was later cited by the British Film Institute as one of the ten most influential documentary films of the twentieth century.

Swimming to Cambodia (1987) is a Jonathan Demme film of a Spalding Gray monologue performance.
It’s quirky and amusing on the surface, as Gray recounts his experience playing a small role in another Cambodia movie, The Killing Fields. But beneath Gray’s charming bemusement runs a real current of anger. He says:

This [American] bombing [of Cambodia] went on for five years. The Supreme Court never passed any judgment on it and the military speaks with pride today that five years of the bombing of Cambodia killed 16,000 of the so-called enemy. That’s 25% killed, and there’s a military ruling that says you cannot kill more than 10% of the enemy without causing irreversible psychological damage. So, five years of bombing, a diet of bark, bugs, lizards and leaves up in the Cambodian jungles, an education in Paris environs in a strict Maoist doctrine with a touch of Rousseau, and other things that we will probably never know about in our lifetime — including, perhaps, an invisible cloud of evil that circles the Earth and lands at random in places like Iran, Beirut, Germany, Cambodia, America — set the Khmer Rouge out to carry out the worst auto-homeo genocide in modern history.

No wonder, perhaps, that Gray committed suicide in 2004.

The movie that Gray played small role in, The Killing Fields (1984), is probably the most well-known of the Cambodian atrocity genre, but it hasn’t aged well. Perhaps we’re all inured to genocide and killing on an industrial scale by now.
But I think there’s more to it. The movie tries to use an interracial buddy story about American journalist Sydney Schanberg and Cambodian photographer Dith Pran as a framing device for the tale of how Dith Pran survived in and escaped from a Khmer Rouge concentration camp. Perhaps the Schanberg part of the story was put in to sell the movie at the box office; a film with an unknown Asian hero and no American good guy would’ve been a tough sell in 1984 (and still would be today). But the two stories don’t mesh well and the lack of chemistry between the Schanberg character (played by Sam Waterston) and Dith Pran (played by Haing S. Ngor) is painful.

The most well-known Cambodia movies has to be Apocalypse Now (1979). It’s usually thought of as a Vietnam movie, but Cambodia is the protagonist’s destination, the location of the very heart of darkness. Click to play my favorite lines:

The story revolves around Colonel Kurtz, a highly decorated but unorthodox American soldier who, after years of combat in Vietnam, goes both AWOL and crazy and sets himself up as the ruler of a tribe of murderous fanatics in the Cambodian jungle, where they live as if they were back in the stone age.
After watching all the other movies in the Cambodian genre, it’s hard not to see Kurtz as a stand-in for the Khmer Rouge itself.

There are five common themes running through these four films which I think sum up how Westerners view Cambodia today.

(1) Cambodia is a secret, mysterious, and bizarre place. (2) Its people are unfathomably brutal. (3) Westerners aren’t supposed to be there. (4) Westerners bring war with them when they arrive and (5) leave destruction and starvation behind when they leave.

Western filmmakers seem to have lost interest in Cambodia in the 21st century and have moved on to other atrocity stories. One Cambodian filmmaker, however, has started to explore his country’s recent history and social psychology.

L’Image Manquante (2013) (English title: The Missing Picture) reflects on the fact that there are few existing photos of life in the Khmer Rouge labor camps. A visual history of the most traumatic event in the country’s history is absent. There are, of course, officially produced pictures, such as films of Pol Pot addressing a gathering of nervous Khmer Rouge officials or visiting an artificially enthusiastic group of Cambodian people. These clips, which are included in the film, are at least a start in the process of trying to explain how and why the Khmer Rouge exterminated between a quarter and a third of their fellow Cambodians.

To compensate for the missing pictures of life under the Khmer Rouge, filmmaker Rithy Panh illustrates his personal narrative with oddly empathic clay figurines, which are sculpted and painted in great detail and set into elaborate dioramas.
Missing Picture
The effect simultaneously distances the view from the literal horrors of the atrocities of the time while forcefully driving home their emotional effects. The process of carefully creating these figurines seems to give the filmmakers and the viewers some way to comprehend and make peace with the past.

The other native Cambodian film, S-21: La Machine de Mort de Khmère Rouge (2003), is also directed by Rithy Panh. It uses a technique I first saw used in The Act of Killing (2012), a documentary about the Indonesian death squads of the 1960s. In both movies, the filmmaker coaxes the murderers, torturers, thugs, and jailers of years ago to re-enact their actions for the camera. Surprisingly, the war criminals seem very eager to perform.

In this documentary, Rithy Panh brings two survivors of the notorious Tuol Sleng prison — a former high school that was used as a detention and torture facility by the Khmer Rouge — back to the premises, which is now a genocide museum.
S21 - regulations
There they confront some of their guards and torturers. It’s a good set-up, but viewers who are seeking explanation, catharsis, understanding, or remorse will come away disappointed. The former Khmer Rouge jailers appear to have walled themselves off, psychologically and morally, from the atrocities committed by their younger selves, and Rithy Panh cannot penetrate their defenses. I was left with little doubt that if a 21st century version of the Khmer Rouge ever came to power, they would find plenty of willing partners among some of the people I saw in this film.

(By the way, I’d love to get my eyes on Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll (2012), which sounds a little more upbeat than all the movies with Death, Killing and Apocalypse in their titles, but I can’t find a copy to download. Would any of my readers care to shoot me a copy?)

Bangkok 9

On Christmas eve, I catch a tuk-tuk to Khaosan Road. Anyone who’s seen or read The Beach knows that street as the place where Richard is first given the mysterious map to the island. It’s backpacker central. In Bangkok Eight, Burdett questions whether it is really part of Thailand at all. I arrive at 8:30 at night and the street seems crowded, but by 10:00 it’s almost impossible to move.

There are bars and inexpensive restaurants, street musicians, travel agents hawking packages to Phuket, stalls offering the latest in tie-dye clothing, Bob Marley paraphernalia, bookstores (in one, I bought what turned out to be a bootleg copy of a Lonely Planet guide to Bangladesh), cheap guesthouses and hostels. There are storefronts advertising in Hebrew, catering to the young Israelis who’ve just been discharged from the IDF and are now on their almost mandatory round-the-world treks. There are young people everywhere. I’ve been on many streets like this, though not for quite a while. To tell the truth, it’s good to be back. It’s easy to sneer at hippie travelers, but even after all this time it still feels like these are my people.

(Ahead to Bangkok 10)

(Back to Bangkok 8)