U.S. mainstream media show us very little about what goes on during wars; we know even less about what happens after wars are over. Between 1968 and 1973 the United States illegally airdropped over one-half a million tons of ordnance on Central and Eastern Cambodia. Between 1970 and 1991 conflicts among the Cambodian government, the Khmer Rouge, and the Vietnamese forces resulted in heavy ground-to-ground combat. War has taken a heavy toll on the Cambodian people, their economy, and land; almost four decades later the ground is still littered with unexploded ordnance. Humanitarian organizations are removing the explosive remnants of war, a laborious and expensive process; and at the current rate, it will take 100 years to eliminate it.
With an eye for what's hidden from view, and an attentive heart, Skye Fitzgerald tells the story of the impoverished villagers who search for and dismantle unexploded ordnance - or "uxo" - to sell as scrap metal for cash - in his film, BOMBHUNTERS. A demand for scrap metal has generated a micro economy around the trade, making it a tempting gamble for desperately poor Cambodians. Fitzgerald and his small crew traveled to remote rural areas over a six-month period, found "bombhunters," engendered their trust, and now tell the villagers' stories, that otherwise wouldn't be heard. Most of the scrap metal collectors are farmers who attempt to supplement their incomes during the dry season. Some of the film's subjects already had accidents while attempting to dismantle bombs, and some are the loved ones of those who lost their lives. The film covers recent Cambodian history, and a history of bombing worldwide. Interviews with the scrap metal collectors, mine action humanitarian workers and other experts are dispersed throughout the film.
Fitzgerald's camera follows a few men over several days from when they find a large bomb to when they dismantle and then sell it. The crescendo of the sequence comes when profits are tabulated and we learn that for over a week of work each man earns a pittance – nine cents per hour. To stay safe, Fitzgerald used a "doubler" lens be able to shoot from far away, and also a head mounted mini camera when a subject was cutting into the bomb with a hacksaw. We watch as the untrained men take their lives into their own hands.
We also see three boys from the K5 mine belt of Cambodia on the Thai border – "the most heavily mined region in the world" – who were injured not long before when they used the TNT from uxo to fish. There is also the young woman whose husband was blown to bits trying to make a little income for his family. The camera captures the depths of her sorrow and desperation as she describes her relief that villagers moved his body so that his strewn body parts didn't fall on him from the nearby tree. She had one child, and a baby on the way, and didn't have enough funds to bury her husband properly.
BOMBHUNTERS is also a work of art. Fitzgerald's sumptuous cinematography with golden hues, ochre sunsets, and yellow straw, captures the setting and rhythms of Cambodia. The stunning camerawork with luscious colors and exquisite faces that are at variance with the reality of the bombs is part of the beauty of the film.
The villagers' stories are memorable. BOMBHUNTERS is on my list of films that all U.S. students and voters – and policymakers - should see, to understand the effects of U.S. foreign policy, of war and bombing, the poverty that ensues, and recent Cambodian history. BOMBHUNTERS can be used as an excellent teaching tool for educators.
The first airdropped bomb was in 1911 when an Italian aviator dropped grenades on Turkish forces. It's amazing to think of a time not too long ago, when there were no airdropped bombs, and astonishing to think of the amount of ordnance that litters the world from less than 100 years. For more information about BOMBHUNTERS, how to help with the uxo issues, and to purchase the film, see: www.bombhunters.com
(Disclosure: I met Skye Fitzgerald through my victim assistance work with Clear Path International; he is working as a DP on EPILOGUE OF WAR (2008), the film I'm producing about uxo victim assistance work in Vietnam. I have a deep admiration for Skye's camerawork, which is evident in this review.)
For Movie Magazine, this is Joan Widdifield. Airdate December 12, 2007.
© 2007 - Joan K. Widdifield, Psy.D - Air Date: 12/12/07
Skye Fitzgerald, Producer/DP; Chris G. Parkhurst, Editor; Patti Duncan, Associate Producer; Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Cambodian Living Arts, Music