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
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
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.