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Where EAST meets the Northwest

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BURIED PAST. Oregon independent filmmaker and Gervais High School teacher Skye Fitzgerald’s Bombhunters. Pictured above is Phon Kaseka, waiting for his ride to arrive at a camp in Mondulkiri province.He is a highly skilled Khmer/English interpreter in Cambodia. (Photo/Chris G. Parkhurst)

From The Asian Reporter, V15, #49 (December 6, 2005), page 15.

The Cambodian Community of Oregon (CACO) wants its
past, both good and bad, told. As a community that empowers
the present and the future, we believe this film will inspire our
children and our future generations to be
compassionate, productive, and responsible.
The success of this film will help us heal the emotional
wounds inflicted by years of wars and the Khmer Rouge.

-- Kilong Ung, CACO President

 

Going for broke

Bombhunters
Directed by Skye Fitzgerald
SpinFilm, 2006

By Polo

Our family fled bombs. Running left or right — indeed, running or not running made no difference. Given the mad method of that era’s saturation bombing strategy, those deadly messengers from unseen ferocious foreigners would surely find you. Only prayer worked. Bombhunters turns this ugly old story backwards.

Cambodia’s rural poor are homing in on bombs.

Iron, brass, and steel casings are worth good money. So is TNT powder. Bombs and bullets, rockets and mortar rounds, some of them inert fragments, many of them unexploded reminders of Southeast Asia’s awful excesses 30 unforgettable years ago, have become important items in local Cambodian cash economies. A miserable trade in scrap metal now subsidizes struggling farm-worker families.

Last year, Oregon independent filmmaker and Gervais High School teacher Skye Fitzgerald was awarded a prestigious Fulbright Scholar grant to document the human-rights issue of unexploded military ordnance in Cambodia and to chronicle the deadly industriousness of rural bombhunters (see "Local filmmaker receives Fulbright," by Edward J. Han, Asian Reporter, August 3, 2004). According to the Phnom Phenh Post in a January 14, 2005 article, ten perished and thirty more were wounded by three decade-old bombs lying dormant but deadly in Cambodian farmlands. Forgotten landmines killed another 27 people.

Mr. Fitzgerald’s latest film will screen on December 10 and 11, coincident with International Human Rights Day and Cambodian American Heritage Month. The debut will be at the Oregon Film & Video Foundation’s venue at the historic Hollywood Theatre. For the occasion, one of Portland’s vigorous mutual assistance associations, the Cambodian-American Community of Oregon (CACO), will provide traditional Khmer music, dance, and food. CACO was recipient of a 2004 Asian Reporter Foundation Exemplary Community Volunteer award.

According to CACO President Kilong Ung, "There were over seven million people living in Cambodia when the Khmer Rouge came to power. No more than half of that number survived the Killing Fields. Of the survivors, only a relatively small number found better parts of the world, such as the U.S."

About his participation in Mr. Fitzgerald’s film, Mr. Kilong said, "We are the ambassadors of the less fortunate Cambodians who were left behind. This film is a very powerful voice to remind the world that there is still much left to do in Cambodia."

Mr. Kilong appears in the documentary along with Oregon author and Khmer activist Ronnie Yimsut, but director Skye Fitzgerald’s focus is on a handful of bombhunters out of innumerable thousands of Cambodian poor looking to make a small pile of pennies from digging up deadly munitions.

Among the treasure hunters featured in Mr. Fitzgerald’s film are: Aki Ra, a cagey former soldier who earlier planted landmines; Yun Te, whose wife nearly bursts from anxiety, worrying aloud how their two baby girls can survive if her husband loses his arms, his legs, or his life; Salot Vuthee, whose husband lost all of those one unlucky afternoon; and Pon Lok, a handless 13-year-old whose face, neck, and chest are pocked with open and angry shrapnel wounds. To say this boy’s eyes are despair, is understatement. He wishes he were dead, instead of maimed.

These honest and awful shots of simple folk doing their practical best for their poor families are Mr. Fitzgerald’s best work. His extraordinary compassion plus his blue-collar sensibilities make a compelling cinematic and moral statement.

Less irresistible are Bombhunter’s lingering historical montage moments — numbing figures on what tonnage was dropped by whom on whom, when and where. They beg argument; they provoke political debate. Perhaps an educator’s trade, but emotionally distracting from his otherwise deeply felt work.

Enough talk. This film needs to be seen. For speaking up for Cambodia’s rural poor, for not remaining silent about America’s past cruelty and current carelessness, our sincere gratitude goes to Skye Fitzgerald and crew. CACO’s Ronnie Yimsut says it best: "Skye and his film crew, in my eyes at least, are champions for those little people who lack voice. It took courage, but more importantly, it took a strong passion to make this kind of film to educate the public. For that, I am personally very grateful — speaking for myself — if not for the Khmer people."

In observance of International Human Rights Day and Cambodian American Heritage Month, traditional Khmer music, food, and Apsara classical dance will precede the Northwest debut of Bombhunters.

For more information on Bombhunters, production efforts, still photos, and news articles, visit <www.bombhunters.com>. For information about the work of the Cambodian-America Community of Oregon, Khmer classes, events, and member profiles, visit <www.cacoweb.org>.