In warfare, besides being picked off by a sniper with his long range rifle, having to face landmines probably ranks up there in terms of fear factor. Buried beyond the naked eye, and activated either through pressure or trip wire, it maims or kills, and survivors often are without limbs. The area of destruction is relatively large, and a small device can be packed with enough shrapnel to take out many in a single discharge, and to rattle troop morale. Larger ones can be used to take out armoured carriers or tanks too.
James Leong and Lynn Lee have crafted an intriguing documentary with Aki Ra's Boys, with Cambodian boys Boreak and Vannak being the titular boys mentioned by virtue of the screen time they have. They aren't ordinary, they are victims of landmines, and have lost one of their arms when inevitably playing with live mines left behind during the war. It's not a pretty sight as they demonstrate up close how it hurts, and show you their stumps, and you wonder how they keep themselves uplifted as they remind the audience that at times, it actually hurts.
Hanging around the Landmines Museum at Siem Reap, Cambodia, Boreak brings you on a typical tour, introducing the weapons of destruction in accented English like an expert in the subject, rattling off the destructive capabilities of the mines as a matter of fact. But the documentary's not all gloom, as most of the images captured were how the boys and their fellow peers make the best of their situation, and seem to have quite a bit of fun in their regular games sessions. I was also impressed by Boreak's maturity, and his earnestness in wanting to provide for his family.
James and Lynn also allowed us to observe Aki Ra at work, which is probably one of the scenes which will make you wince. A soldier in the Khmer Rouge regime, Aki Ra now devotes his time and effort into demining Cambodia, putting his skills as a mine layer to good use, in removing the mines to prevent any innocent lives lost, or injured severely. Probably the best in the business, he had defused more than 30,000 of them, and the entire sequence of him going through the process of demining in a rather haphazard manner, will make you cringe, even though you know nothing bad will happen with all the frequent knocking and clanging (otherwise James and Lynn wouldn't be around for the screening!)
Not without flaws, I thought the documentary indulged a little in the scenes at Angkor Wat, and was a little repetitive with Boreak showing off his WWE Championship impersonations, dragging out the third act. But all in all it's an incredible effort in bringing us scenes from the ground, in one of the world's most heavily mined countries, showing us the lives of those impacted by this particular weapon, and the little personal stories on hope and perseverance, in making the best of what we have, to try and do a lot more.
I'm already a big fan of James and Lynn's works, the previous documentary feature being Passabe, I'd rue the chance I had during HKIFF where I could witness the world premiere of their latest documentary Homeless FC (had to fly back to Singapore on the same day), and I am crossing my fingers that Homeless FC will make a screening here soon!
James Leong and Lynn Lee were present today for the screening of their documentary Aki Ra's Boys. The following was the Q&A session which transpired after the screening. Do note that it's not verbatim.
Q: What was the duration spent in making this documentary?
A: Lynn mentioned she met the kids about 4 months before shooting, and over a 6 month period, the actual filming took 3 weeks, and a one week for follow up.
Q: How did they meet the boys?
A: Lynn met Boreak when she was in Cambodia to film another documentary, and noticed him performing a dance amongst a group of girls, and his obvious missing limb. When she approached him to be in a film, his first reaction was to run away! Thankfully they managed to get in touch with Aki Ra (and hence the rest as they say was history).
James shared that the Landmines Museum was in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and Boreak's village was actually 100km away, but because of the condition of the roads, it took about 6 to 7 hours to reach. The place where Aki Ra was demining was somewhere near the Thai border.
With a crew of 3 (James, Lynn and their technical manager Rajesh), they were actual more afraid prior to being on site to observe and film Aki Ra sifting for mines, but when they were on location, it was kind of hypnotic watching Aki Ra going about his job, and the fear went away during the filming process. With Aki Ra's experience with defusing more than 30,000 mines, there's no other person better to follow into a minefield, than him.
James and Lynn also shared that they had a translator to bridge the language barrier, and their toughest challenge faced was editing something in a language that you don't understand - how to cut it an dmake it work. They had 26 hours of film, and actually subtitled all of it.
They were also asked about the status of Boreak, and they mentioned they actually went back in Feb this year to show the film to the boys, but Boreak wasn't present as he's in school. And in fact he's taking school more seriously now, and is really tall, calmer, and less mischievous. They also didn't get to meet Boreak's father as he's a soldier and not at home a lot.
Q: Were the boys more "showy" when the cameras were turned on?
A: When the cameras were on, Boreak actually did a lot more of his WWE Champion mimicry.
I thought one question asked was quite impolite, but probably had to be asked so that misconceptions could be cleared - the documentary wasn't staged (James also shared they filmed many interviews, and were able to use them as an underlay), and that they do not share the philosophy of having to pay people they film, so as not to cause the folks/interviewees to be beholden to them and doing what they want them to do. However, a token donation was made to Aki Ra's museum funds.
You can read more about the production process from James Leong and Lynn Lee's blog