Documentary exposes unexploded bombs left in Laos from Vietnam War
“Eternal Harvest,” a social awareness film on the continuing damage in Laos from the Vietnam War, will make its world premiere at the Chagrin Documentary Film Festival on Sunday.
The 12th annual fest opened on Tuesday in Chagrin Falls at the Chagrin Falls Intermediate School theater with the world premiere of “War on the Diamond.” Cleveland Indians owner Paul Dolan made an appearance. The fest continues through this week featuring 97 films at three venues and ends on Sunday.
“Eternal Harvest” explores the massive number of bombs that remain in Laos today and how civilians are killed regularly from the bombs that the U.S. did not remove after the war.
Co-producers Karen Coates and Jerry Redfern of Bosque Farms, New Mexico said that the U.S. dropped 4 billion pounds of explosives on Laos between 1964 and 1973 in an offshoot of the Vietnam War, making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in the world. Up to 30 percent of the bombs did not detonate, they said, and remain in Laos as unexploded ordnance.
Ms. Coates and Mr. Redfern, a married couple, are both independent journalists. Ms. Coates, 50, is a writer focusing on food, the environment, health and human rights. Mr. Redfern, 51, is a visual journalist covering the environment, health and human rights in the developing world. They said they were aware of this continuing problem in Laos since 1998, but did not fully understand it until 2005.
“In 2005 we were working on a story for Archeology Magazine and the archaeologist had to work with a bomb clearance team,” Ms. Coates said. “When we were there reporting, we heard about 20 accidents in that area. We knew we had to do something about this.”
More than 20,000 Laotians have been killed or injured by the remaining bombs since the war ended. Ms. Coates and Mr. Redfern said many people have helped to clear Laos of bombs over the years, but few are American. The film follows one American, Jim Harris, who returned every year for 20 years to help clean up the unexploded ordnance and founded a nonprofit called We Help War Victims.
The U.S. spent $50 billion to bomb Laos, but spent $300 million to clean it up. The filmmakers interview local and foreign experts and families affected by the loss of a loved one. Mr. Redfern said there are two takeaways from the film.
“First, we want Americans to know about this piece of their own history, it’s not a small piece. It’s literally still killing people 50 years later in another country because of something America did,” he said. “Second is we’re hoping our government steps up and takes more seriously that the amount of funding the U.S. gives (for cleanup) could be increased.”
Ms. Coates said society has never addressed the question of what America’s responsibility is to another country after a war has ended. The same question is resurfacing now, she said, after President Joseph Biden pulled U.S. troops out of Afghanistan after a 20-year war.
Mr. Redfern said Cambodia has a similar problem with landmines. The difference, however, is that landmines are intended to injure a person. The bombs remaining in Laos are designed to kill people, he said.
“It’s rare to see injured people from unexploded ordnance (bombs). Usually there’s not much left of them, they die,” he said. “You can know about it but you don’t see it regularly. You’re lucky if it doesn’t go off. There’s not a lot of walking wounded.”
Despite the continuing deaths from bombs dropped by U.S. troops, Ms. Coates said that Laotians do not hold a grudge against Americans. For the most part, she said people are happy to talk about their experiences but they do not want to dwell on the past. Some people are rightfully angry, she said, especially if they have lost someone to unexploded ordnance, but the people are mostly welcoming and hospitable.
“Lao people and southeast Asian people are very capable of differentiating between people and government,” Ms. Coates said. “Anger is felt toward what the government did and not individual people.”
Ms. Coates and Mr. Redfern plan to put a list of organizations on their website that support the victims and assist in the bomb clearance work. Their website is eternalharvestfilm.com. Ms. Coates also said that viewers should call their Congress people if they feel strongly about increasing funding for the clean up effort.
The co-producers will not attend the showing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Mr. Harris, the retired Wisconsin teacher who helps with bomb clearance in Laos, will be at the screening. The film will be shown at the Chagrin Falls Intermediate School Theater at 12:45 p.m. on Oct. 10. Tickets are available at chagrinfilmfest.org or at the box office in Chagrin Falls Township Hall, 83 N. Main St. in Chagrin Falls.