Two new films about Laos are notable for their radically different depictions of the results of the American intervention there.
Bomb Harvest, the highly acclaimed documentary about the continuing effects of the American war legacy in Laos, is as explosive and as hidden from mainstream media as its subject matter.
The story centres around Australian bomb disposal specialist, Laith Stevens, as he trains a young Lao team to deal with bombs left from the war. It also portrays the precarious situation of impoverished local communities who, unable to farm the land for fear of detonating unexploded ordnance (UXO), resort to collecting bombs for sale as scrap metal.
While the devastation reaped by landmines in Cambodia has gained notoriety through celebrity adoption, and the American intervention in Indochina has long been popularly misconceived as the “Vietnam War,” the continuing impact of the intervention on Laos remains virtually unknown.
According to the National UXO Program:
Laos has the distinction of being, per capita, the most heavily bombed nation in the world. More than half a million bombing missions were carried out between the years 1964 to 1973, during which more than two million tons of explosive ordnance was dropped. This includes approximately 270 million anti-personnel submunition bomblets or “bombies” released from cluster bombs, becoming in effect, de facto anti-personnel land mines. It is estimated that up to 30% of all ordnance did not explode, leaving a lethal legacy that continues to kill, maim, and impoverish over 30 years later.
Emotive statistics and exotic subject-matter have inspired the odd feature article in the Western media in the past, but Bomb Harvest refocuses attention on the everyday lives of the people who continue to be affected and threatened by UXO rather than on geopolitical history and covert military operations.
Shy young UXO workers, stubborn elderly villagers who mumble “the bombs didn’t get me during the war, so they won’t get me now”, larger-than-life amputees, and curious village children searching for ways to make money from scrap metal, are all brought onto centre-stage as they meet the down-to-earth and playful Australian expert, Laith Stevens. The very genuine and passionate comradery that takes place between Laith and the people around him makes it easy to see how someone could fall in love with Laos.
From his self-depricating jokes about how he cannot find a Lao wife because his face resembles that of a lizard to his willingness to partake in shots of the local alcohol, Laith is a “participant” in the lives of others rather than an onlooker, or someone looking down from above.
Another new film that is notable in a very different way for its focus on Laos is Rescue Dawn, the latest Hollywood ode to the fallen American hero. An historical period drama about the bravery of downed US Navy pilot, Dieter Dengler, the film continues the Hollywood tradition of remembering the people who dropped the bombs on Laos and demonising the Communist enemy.
Rescue Dawn is billed as “the incredible true story of one man’s fight for freedom’. Its producer argues that it focuses on the “courage, optimism perseverance, self-reliance, frontier spirit, loyalty and joy of life” in the pilot’s story and claims this represents “the best of the American spirit.” Bomb Harvest shows these same qualities reflected in the people still living in the place that Dieter Dengler ‘escaped’. The great sprit of the people that Laith Stevens meets is reflected in the way they deal with the daily dangers and hardship of their lives.
Unlike its Hollywood alter-ego, Bomb Harvest is an important contribution to understanding the continuing effects of a denied and forgotten war on the people of Laos. It screened on ABC Television (Australia) at 8:35 pm on November 29.