STOP10: 'Until They're Gone' by Christopher Lockett

Director of 'Until They're Gone', Christopher Lockett 

Bill Morse is a volunteer who has been working for the landmine cause in Cambodia. He got out of cushy retirement in California to create Landmine Relief Fund in Siem Reap with his wife Jill Morse. Under Landmine Relief Fund, they helped raise funds for Aki Ra, a former Khmer Rouge child soldier, and his team of deminers: Cambodian Self Help Demining—CSHD. These deminers dig up landmines by hand to rid Cambodia of its deadly legacy.

Many people have had fateful experiences with landmines in Cambodia. This documentary on the Morse couple, puts the spotlight on the ongoing landmine issue in Cambodia and possibly around the world, which they feel is not getting enough attention. Here is a chilling fact, one person gets maimed by landmines every 22 minutes around the world and Cambodia is one of the most heavily mined countries on the planet.

Bill Morse and Jill Morse at a fundraising event

In the film, we are also introduced to Aki Ra, a former Khmer Rouge child soldier, who tried to manually remove landmines using just a stick and pliers. His DIY landmine removal operation was later shut down by the government, only to be injected with a new lease of life when Bill and Jill came into the picture and provided him with certified training and funds.

Thanks to Christopher Lockett, the maker of this documentary Until They're Gone, who generously shared about the experience of making this film in our interview with him, we are greatly enlightened about this pressing issue, still gripping countries, reeling from the after-effects of war.


Have you been to a post-war country ridden with landmines, or was this your first time? Did you have fears of stepping onto one during the shoot?

I have been to Colombia, which is also plagued by landmines. I've also been to Mali, Cote D'Ivoire, and Senegal where there were local rumors of landmines. But previous to visiting Cambodia for the purpose of making the film, I was never in an area that had so many landmines, nor such an involved history with the U.S. as Cambodia.

I was never afraid of stepping on a mine when we were shooting. The deminers work to exacting international safety standards and the protocols in place were closely followed. The deminers would sometimes joke, when I was about to place a tripod on the ground: "No no, not there!" and then laugh if I had a look of panic on my face. 

As Bill Morse says in the film: "People looking for landmines don't get hurt by them. It's the people who aren't looking for them who get hurt or killed." 

Did you have first hand experience of seeing a land mine explode?

I had never seen a landmine explode before making the film. I work in film/TV as a cinematographer and camera operator as my day job. I have been around controlled pyrotechnics before, but not landmines. When the deminers clear unexploded ordnance such as landmines from a field, the blow it up in-situ. The concussive blast - you can feel it in your chest 100 meters away. 

Did you have a story in mind when you started or did you just go with the flow of the shoot and the story emerged slowly during editing?

I had a much bigger story in mind, initially. I wanted to do a global story, several countries. But budgetary realities, time, resources, which I'll get to in question 4, necessitated refining the focus and reining things in to a manageable shoot. As Bill Morse and I discussed the larger issues, and as I was still not finding the elusive thing I was after from the start - and American entrance point into the story, a place where an American audience could relate to the subjects of the film, mainly because our audiences in the States dislike reading subtitles for an entire film - it occurred to me that Bill and Jill Morse were the story. 

They uprooted from their California retirement to relocate to Siem Reap, solely to fund Aki Ra and his team of deminers. Telling that story, a relatable story about someone seeing an issue, realizing they bring something to the table that might help the problem, that story tells itself, has a narrative drive, etc. Juggling all the complicating issues and history that led to the landmine and unexploded ordnance problem in Cambodia, and the United States role in that history with so many moving parts.... that was what needed to be very carefully edited. 

Whenever telling stories about real, living people, much care must be taken to get the facts and the nuances just right. And the history, there is so much of it! The film is dense. I think people learn a lot from repeated viewing. But the challenge in the editing is to not let the story bog down. Nobody wants to watch a 90-minute news report. But a story about people trying to make a real difference, a hopeful difference the audience can actually feel and be motivated to action themselves - that's the challenge of the edit. 

Aki Ra

My technique is very simple, although as the saying goes "Simple does not always mean easy." I put the people who know how to talk about the issues on camera, let them tell their story, and stay out of the way. 

What were the greatest challenges making this film?

Budget. I made the film because people weren't paying attention to the ongoing landmine issue. Out of sight, out of mind. When you pitch a story like that, people get excited and think "Oh wow, I didn't know this..." But those generally aren't the people with access to the kind of funding required to send a film crew to Cambodia from the U.S. several times to shoot this film. I am experienced DIY, low budget filmmaker who also has been lucky enough to work on high production value films and TV shows. So I was able to make a film that doesn't feel like it was made on a shoestring budget. But that takes a toll on your crew, your relationships, yourself. It's not an easy thing to do. Maybe that's why no one else was telling this particular story, ha! Constantly having to figure out how to cash in favors, how to pay for things, how to give this story the serious research, and production value that would appeal to a broader audience... all very difficult when you don't have the resources to do it. But in the end, you know you have to get it done. It's too important an issue to let something like funding stop you from doing it. So you simply find a way. 

Describe the most dangerous part of your shooting experience.

The most dangerous part of filming was probably crossing the street in Phnom Penh. Joking. There's always some danger when shooting abroad. I speak only a few words of Khmer. Occasionally someone would ask who I was, what am I doing with a camera, etc. I got something like the flu and had to keep shooting in the minefield on cold medicines wearing body armor in extreme heat. A cameraman on my crew discovered he was allergic to the local mosquitoes in Siem Reap, so we had to lance an infected blister, drain it with a syringe, wrap it, and continue shooting. A camerawoman on our crew got food poisoning. I felt terrible about that because she had signed up for a Khmer cooking class on her day off, but she spent it sick. 

Sleep deprivation, fatigue, rough travel in trucks, buses, tuk-tuk's, staying healthy on the road. Those were the main challenges. We honestly weren't in that much peril while shooting with the deminers in the fields, even when blowing things up. They are very serious about their safety protocols, thankfully. 

The crew who was shooting with me are colleagues and friends. We've done very tough shoots in difficult environments around the world, five continents now. I trust them and they accept the challenge of bringing home great footage that tells the story, no matter what the challenges of the environment or location are. All of us came away with an appreciation for Cambodia and Khmer culture. Despite its growing pains and local issues, every one of us would come back to Cambodia in a heartbeat. I'm writing this from a hotel room in Phnom Penh right now. 

What kind of social impact or benefit has the film created so far? (We know you have a donation option on your website)

Social impact - people are learning about the issue. They're learning about the American involvement in Cambodia during the Vietnam War era. They're learning how these explosive remnants of war keep a country from moving forward. It's very hard to do that when you can't walk to school or farm the land because what's lurking under the soil might kill you. 

With the current administration in Washington, DC, there is a very real and immediate threat of funding cuts. That's one of the chief aims of this film - to help Landmine Relief Fund raise money to keep deminers in the field. The film talks a lot about the cost involved with keeping the demining effort going. I want people who see the film to know that making a difference is within their financial means. They can make a difference. 

Until They're Gone was screened the recent 8th Cambodia International Film Festival.

Check out the film's website and Facebook page, where you can learn about how you could make a donation.

Interview by Jeremy Sing

Check out the other 9 films in our STOP10 list of Cambodian films from CIFF 2018.
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