Encore Magazine Review of Bomb Harvest

Filming in the Danger Zone: Making "Bomb Harvest"

The makers of Bomb Harvest risked life and limb in their bid to tell the story of the removal of the unexploded bombs that litter Laos.   Peter Galvin reports.

Publication: Encore Magazine

Publication Date: 07/01/2007

ACCORDING TO THE EXPERTS LAOS IS THE MOST bombed place on the planet. While the US and its allies waged war in Vietnam, they were fighting a secret war by remote control on its neighbour, dropping two million tonnes of high explosive on the Laos people, rendering around a third of the population dead, injured or homeless. 35 years later an estimated 30 percent of those bombs remain un-exploded and so are still deadly; they can be triggered by a knock or a mobile phone signal. Thousands of Laotians die every year (many of them children) from ordnance that litters the country in villages and jungle and farmland.

The Lao, an essentially agrarian culture, are so poor and their land is so badly contaminated from either bomb damage or is unsafe, they cannot farm so they 'harvest' bomb fragments and sell it to the scrap merchants from Vietnam. Meanwhile the government in partnership with groups like the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) sends out experts to 'clear' the unexploded bombs.

A new local documentary Bomb Harvest tells this story, but from the 'inside,' as it follows Australian bomb disposal expert Laith Stephens of MAG as he trains a group of Lao technicians to deal with the large aircraft bombs of 250 to 1000 pounds. The film, which has a pre-sale to the ABC was developed by the Australian Film Commission, mixes archival footage with contemporary observational footage of the disposal teams at work. "Like so many films the idea for Bomb Harvest was born in a bar after a long night of drinking," explains producer, Sylvia Wilczynski, who also wrote and researched the film. Nearly four years ago Wilczynski and her partner, director and cinematographer Kim Mordaunt were in Laos, travelling. One night, while they were there they encountered a pair of Australian bomb experts, who had just finished another nerve-shredding day on the job. "They opened up to us," continues Mordaunt, "not only about the job but about themselves."

The filmmakers decided then and there to make the movie but Mordaunt and Wilczynski immediately encountered a wary scepticism about their premise from potential investors. Laos remains a communist country and its bureaucracy is tangled and complicated; they are understandably suspicious of the media. Said Mordaunt: "Laos is a developing country and as such it is somewhat dysfunctional and consequently it's easy for outsiders to throw dirt on it," Wilczynski added: "They have a history of western journalists pretending to do human interest stories but are there in fact to do some kind of expose."

This meant the filmmakers engaged in a lengthy round of correspondence and meetings with government and diplomats (the delicate process lasted for much of the two years it took to make the film). When the time came to finally shoot the film, a government minder was with them at all times; still, the filmmakers did not in the end encounter any censorship. "Trust takes time," Wilczynski said ruefully. MAG was crucial in facilitating access for the filmmakers. A further complication was that the Laos population is made up of Lao Loum [Laos speakers] and various indigenous tribes; the latter do not speak Lao and have no written language. This meant that the Bomb Harvest crew had to have two translators: "And it made subtitling the film very difficult!" Wilczynski said.

But the truly white knuckle production issue was Mordaunt and Wilczynski's desire to shoot the bomb disposal team’s work up close.

This meant shooting footage right next to an explosive that could detonate at any moment. "We couldn't make this film at arm's length," Mordaunt said.

"A lot of what transfixed us in the research trip we did [before shooting] was the camaraderie in the teams, the fact that it's not just a technical job," Wilczynski explained. Still, shooting the film in this was way made insurance almost impossible; Wilczynski finally found a UK firm which specialised in bomb disposal to sign on for the most dangerous aspects of the shoot; local insurers covered the rest.

Mordaunt shot the film on the Sony HVR-Z1P for the main part of the shoot. Unusually for an observational documentary, the film makes much use of tracking shots: "We had this little pipe dolly I carried around," Wilczynski explained. "It was very light and using it was important to us because we wanted the film to have a lyrical, dreamy quality," Mordaunt added.

Bomb Harvest shows the disposal crews detonating ordnance and these explosions were shot on a smaller HDV cam, which was operated inside a housing that Mordant and Wilczynski had specially designed for that purpose. "The casing for the explosion sequences was not only bullet proof but also pressurised," Mordaunt explained. He said this was necessary because bombs actually work on 'waves.'

 "A detonation sends out a wave, which is followed by another wave that sucks the energy back in--and that's what does the damage."

 Mordant added grimly: "A detonation will suck the guts out of a camera, the way it sucks the guts out of its victims; and if that doesn't get you the shrapnel will."

 However, Bomb Harvest is not a down beat experience; it is oddly optimistic.

 "We wanted it to be a celebration of the Laotian people and their resilience," Wilczynski said. For the bomb experts the job is a daunting one: According to MAG it will likely take 100 years to dispose of the millions of bombs that litter Laos.

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