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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Landmines drama to get Emmy screening

Landmines drama to get Emmy screening

T he innocence of children is a powerful tool in making an appeal. Swiss director
Alice Schmid took an emotive political issue - landmines - for her film

Letters to Grown-Ups. To illustrate the horror of these deadly weapons, she

built her story around a beautiful child in Cambodia.

Ria, the appealing

6-year-old heroine of her film, tells her story through letters that she is

writing, but she keeps the most poignant detail for the end. With simplicity,

she describes her life after the war. Her refugee family return to a mine-ridden

area. The shadow of fear under which they live becomes palpable when her younger

brother dies in a landmine explosion. Grandma becomes quieter but teaches Ria

how to dance.

Ria visits the temple every day, mounting the steep

staircase with her tiny legs. She describes another brother who sells newspapers

in the city.

Meanwhile, with her angelic face and expressive hands, she

dreams of becoming a dancer.

The story comes full circle. The final

images are those of the beginning where Ria is writing, and she makes the

revelation on which the story turns.

This is a gentle film on a violent

subject. It sometimes borders on sentimentality because of Ria's guileless

sweetness, and her dubbed voice-over with an English child's voice occasionally

seems contrived.

But Schmid's film is not destined for an audience of

Cambodian children. It is an international plea to halt landmines, and a child

as captivating as Ria cannot be ignored.

Schmid has directed her amateur

cast with sensitivity. The acting is so natural, especially by Khat Srei Wong,

the radiant little girl, and Em Theay, the great dance teacher, who plays


Throughout her career Alice Schmid, 44, has made films about

children. "I have made about a hundred over the past 15 years," she said. "I

used to do PR films, and have covered every subject from women's issues to child

sexual abuse."

She was inspired to make Letters to Grown Ups after

attending a land-mine film festival in 1994 called Children Say No. She paid for

a third of the $270,000 film costs, and raised the rest from a Swiss and a

German television company.

Of the many countries in the world which

produce and suffer from landmines, listed in the film's credits, she chose

Cambodia because the Mines Awareness Group made her aware of its immense

problem. She came here in August 1994.

With her team of five, including

art director Katrina Brunner, she wrote the screenplay as she went along. She

had seen Khat Srei Wong in a documentary on Khmer music, for she and her family

are musicians. "I knew she was the girl I wanted for the film," she said. She

went looking for the family, and eventually found them playing in a cafe over

the Japanese bridge.

The notion of including the newspaper came to her

when she visited the Phnom Penh Post.

The idea is successful in

highlighting the power of the media. She saw a photo of journalist Leo Dobbs on

the wall and asked if he would play the editor.

Other Post journalists

found their office transformed into a filmset and became impromptu extras,

including the publisher and managing editor.

Dobbs plays with an ideal

blend of gravitas and compassion. The scene where he comes to help Ria, arriving

at her village on the back of a moto carrying two other people, his long legs

dangling in the brilliant green rice paddies, is delightfully comic.


spontaneity in the way Schmid works gives the film a freshness and enhances the

innocence which makes her message so potent.

The film has been shown

around the world and is to be presented for an Emmy Award in Los Angeles this


Meanwhile, Schmid is preparing to make another film here on dance,

and is helping Khat Srei Wong as a result of this movie's success. She herself

has not had a family. "My films are my children," she said.



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