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World premiere of “Aki Ra’s Boys”

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World Premiere on 24 April at the 20th Singapore International Film Festival (SIFF) 2007.

Lynn Lee’s and James Leong’s documentary “Aki Ra’s Boys”, 63 min.

After the somewhat ambivalent short that preceded this feature screening, the two local filmmakers Lynn Lee and James Leong presented the audience with their latest documentary, “Aki Ra’s Boys” about a group of teenage land mine victims in Cambodia, who at Aki Ra’s land mine museum are given an opportunity to get an education and better their chances for a more promising personal future (see earlier reporting on Sinema). The heart and center of this film, as well as its principal strength are these real-life heroes who have each been maimed by land mines. Missing an arm or a leg, they are coping with it, being genuinely realistic about their state of life rather than crippled or stuck in their predicament. In growing up they are dealing with their fate on its unalterable terms.

A strong subject matter like this certainly has its very own, intrinsic appeal, a human interest story written by life itself shouldn’t fail to incite almost everyone’s empathy. Yet, we all know that documentaries have their own cliffs to avoid and challenges to live up to. But “Aki Ra’s Boys” is one of those real finds that don’t revel in themselves but have the honesty to abstain from any interpreting foregrounding or staging effects. True, there is hardly anything in this theme to be fiercely divided about, is there? Who wouldn’t take instantly to these kids, who while fully aware of their handicaps, still find it in them to go on and live, and aspire and be foolish as any seemingly happier teenager would? Now, what seems like the most striking quality in this documentary is that here you have a convincingly rendered low profile approach, which serves the cause best. And to allow for your subject’s slow unfolding, as a director, to take the back seat to what the matter is on its own accord, this is no small achievement, a laudable and rare exercise in humility. In “Aki Ra’s Boys” it certainly works and pays off by no small measure. Any more technical refinement than a filming crew of three and a Panasonic HD camera couldn’t have captured this natural intensity but would, most likely, have ruined it instead.

Sure, there are repetitions and passages in there, when you could think it a tad dragging, but essentially, not to include these scenes and resort to some story-line pace of editing would have meant to artificially create an aspect of tidiness that obviously wasn’t the whole story. Because when Boreak repeatedly boasts of his physical strength after wrestling down his lanky, “two-armed” opponent, proclaiming himself yet again to be the “WWE champion”, he is in fact interacting with the onlooking camera. And here precisely, just as in that episode where he and his comrades play cards and they are all being real silly with each other, you see something that is probably not as rare as you might think: natural irony. To me this is as upright an appraisal of being granted our life as could be, something mostly obscured by our busy-life distortion of how we think we ought to perceive of ourselves. There is a non-compromising dignity about the way these boys and girls carry themselves, which absolutely shines and can’t fail to connect right to your heart. There are moments of gripping suspense in there as well, the excruciatingly haphazard defusing of an anti-tank mine especially, that will teach you a lesson or two about coolness!

Another example of the many gems in this film to take note of and to duly acknowledge the directors’ choices in putting it together from the entire 26 hours of original footage, is the outing the two boys Boreak and Vannak are taken on by their 18-year old friend Hai to Angkor. Instead of viewing the imposing structures, the tourist worshippers take these teenagers for a sight, snapping their pictures as they climb up the steep stairs of one temple. This snippet provides a contrast that is just as subtle as it is telling of how there exist many worlds side by side and wide apart at the same point in place and time. But I suggest that you should see for yourself and come to your own reading of this.

Maybe the only thing that is missing in terms of structure or overall composition from “Aki Ra’s Boys” is a well-balanced informative thread that stitches more tightly together the parts focusing on observing the boys as they play, or Boreak visiting his family, and those showing Aki Ra’s work in the field, to illuminate the factual connection between the two and provide more of a background.

All things considered however, I highly recommend this film to you who are trained in watching documentaries and I wish for many more audiences to get a chance to see it. For this documentary befits its subject, treats it carefully and manages to give you a clue of what their impediment means to these kids, what it burdens them with but, even more strikingly, what it fails to take away from them. “Aki Ra’s Boys” doesn’t call for your pity, what could it mean to them, anyway? It is one further contribution to that crucial call for awareness, especially in the developed world, not to turn a blind eye on this issue, which is as burning today as it was in the 90s, when exactly such efforts brought about a major change and really made a difference. The charta which eventually put a ban on land mines, was the first ever instance where a grassroots’ initiative and orchestrated campaign became international law and proved that indeed, things can be changed for the better. There are still vast areas out there, not just in Cambodia, that still need to be cleared from anti-person mines. Until they are, they will continue to claim further victims, unknowing kids not least among them. Those who have suffered this devastation already, are surely the strongest reminder of how valuable life is and how pressing, therefore, the task. As “Aki Ra’s Boys” brings out this simple truth in a refreshingly non-preaching manner, it really is a good documentary.

Both films, “Aki Ra’s Boys” and “The Changi Murals” in their own, very different ways, deal with the strength of the human will to persevere in the face of adversity and accordingly, they make a good programming match. In my judgment the former shows what that means while the latter expands on a theme.

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