Tanner Matthews and Shelby Baldock’s Bombie is a portrait of those putting their lives on the line to make a difference in the most heavily bombed nation on earth: Laos.
Close-up Culture’s James Prestridge spoke to the filmmakers to learn more about Bombie ahead of its screenings at the Raindance Film Festival (22 and 23 September). For ticket info
Q: The trailer for ‘Bombie’ has a few jaw-dropping statistics, including the fact that over 20,000 people have been killed or injured by these “bombies” since the Vietnam War ended. How did the two of you learn of these horrifying statistics and the lasting impact of landmines in Laos?
A: When working towards earning an MFA in Film Production at Chapman University, Tanner Matthews was awarded a scholarship, along with three other students, Eric Colonna, Neusha Ghaedi and Jack Sample to produce a film in Laos about the UXO (Unexploded ordnance) crisis that has severely affected the country and its people since the Vietnam War.
The short film highlighted an American NGO named Give Children a Choice and went on to become an Official Selection at the Newport Beach International Film Festival in 2016.
Since then, he has teamed up with Shelby Baldock and produced a powerful new feature film from the material, along with capturing original footage, adding a professional score, and digging deeper into the stories that abound around this issue.
The result, we believe, is an emotional and uncompromising look at both the immediate dangers Laotians face on a daily basis and the current efforts to resolve the issue.
Q: What did you discover and witness when you visited these communities in Laos? How have their lives been shaped by the war and the continuing devastation cause by it?
A: Upon arrival in Laos, it was immediately noticeable that the country was affected heavily by the bombing. There are still bomb shells everywhere you go, houses are made out of them, fences, mailboxes, spoons, all sorts of things. It is part of the fabric of the country, and interwoven within the culture.
Unfortunately, many people make a living by excavating the metal from these UXO and risk their lives on a daily basis, as noted by one of our characters in the film, Mr. Huong.
Aside from the hard evidence that is still present, there is even a more eerie presence of the country, especially when viewed from an airplane. The pristine landscape of rolling hills and glowing rice patties are littered with craters as if a painting hanging on a wall had been sprayed with buckshot, and the people just plant their rice around these massive 8-10 meter holes in the land. It’s devastating to say the least.
Q: What struck you the most from your interactions and time spent with those affected by the ‘bombies’?
A: From what they have gone through, they are the most kind and generous people I have ever met.
We went to go interview a family in a small village on the Vietnam Border, and it was the last stop of the day. There was no sun and it was pouring rain, leading us into night by the time we got there. The family welcomed us in their small one-room hut perched on a hill, with dirt floors and rainwater seeping through turning it to mud. They didn’t have much money, and poverty is ubiquitous in Laos. But they told us that their little boy had returned to the hospital and would not be available for filming.
The older son went behind a hanging blanket that separated the bedrooms from the living room and he came back out with bottles of coconut water for all of us. We graciously accepted, and our fixer, Thongchanh, told us that the family probably worked for two weeks to be able to afford all of these coconut waters as gifts for us. We set the cameras down, and didn’t film a single thing.
Instead we took the time to get to know these people, how kind they are, how heroic and hard-working they are, and how much they all just wanted to see a change. To this day, it is still one of the most moving experiences I have ever had.
Q: Is there any sense of resentment from the communities towards the US?
A: Not even close. Out of the 15-20 interviews we did, not one person was resentful. They all maintained an eagerness for resolution, but no one exemplified any sort of anger or animosity towards anyone responsible for the bombing.
Q: Do the landmines trap these communities in the past? Is it possible to forge a future with these lethal reminders of the past hidden everywhere?
A: The extreme amount of bombies still present keep a lot of Laos from progressing. One of the characters in the film says it’s as if his province hasn’t been able to develop since 1974. It is an ever-present threat that creates fear and constant danger.
Despite all of this, Laotians do continue to develop their nation, but it takes money and effort to clear areas, especially the rural areas, like those featured in the film.
Q: Why do you believe the US are so unwilling to face up to the horrors they have caused – and continue to cause – in Laos? Is it a national mentality, convenience or something else?
A: We learned a lot of the US’s efforts and non-efforts while making the film.
It’s incredibly frustrating to read that the US “intends” to join the Convention on Cluster Munitions, then years go by with nothing. Part of the issue is the long stretch of time. We hid it for so long and we had too much pride. To this very day, the vast majority of Americans know absolutely nothing about this crisis in Laos.
When Obama visited Laos, it was accused of being an “apology tour” by the right. Many Americans genuinely don’t feel responsibility for this nation’s horrific actions against Laos and it is simply due to education and time. That’s why it’s important to push the issue as much as possible.
Q: We hear the voices of Nixon and Obama in the trailer. What role do the voices of US Presidents play in the film and what do you explore through them?
A: Well I think we are all looking to the US Presidents, both then, and now, for answers. And the answers are seemingly hard to find. Even Lyndon Johnson during the Vietnam War, in his televised speech to Americans, it felt as if he were simply manufacturing inspiring phrases – but to what end is anyone’s guess. The same continues from President to President on this issue.
Q: What can be done to help the Laotians and counter these landmines? And are you hopeful that help will come?
A: The biggest effort right now is risk-education. This is something that can be spread simply by word of mouth, and using the correct instruction. In the future we would like to see land clearance on a broader scale, and hopefully technology and funding can aid in this.
Q: What was your experience like filming and working in Laos? Did you have to take any measures for your own safety while filming in this landmines-ridden areas?
A: Filming in third world countries is always a challenge, but adding the threat of bombs inches below your feet severely increased the stakes. At one point Thongchanh stressed the necessity to stay on well-trodden paths.
At another instance, I remember specifically filming the clearance workers and they heard a beep on the makeshift metal detector, so I rushed over to capture footage, and they immediately pierced the ground with a spade. For an instant I could barely breathe, only imagining that the blade striking the bombie.
Luckily it was a few inches off, and they were able to dig around it successfully. But for a moment there, I felt the sheer dread evoked from the very object that this country has spent decades avoiding.
Q: ‘Bombie’ will screen at the Raindance Film Festival in London. What impact do you hope the film has on audiences?
A: We are so excited to show the film in a world capital, with the hopes that it will move people and gain the exposure that it deserves.
You can see ‘Bombie’ at the Raindance Film Festival in London (22 and 23 September). For ticket info