Around 1980, when he was 10 years old, Aki Ra was conscripted by the Khmer Rouge and taught to plant land mines; he had no choice if he wanted to live. Along with other child soldiers, Aki Ra planted a lot of them. Today an estimated 5 million landmines are still buried in Cambodia.
After over 20 years of war, when his country finally saw relative peace, Aki Ra was given a choice about how to live his life. He chose to do good by making his country safer for his people. His story is told in the film, A Perfect Soldier, directed by John Severson and produced by Brooks Bergreen and Richard Fitoussi. It will screen during Mountainfilm at Wilkinson Library, Friday, 8:45 p.m., and at the Sheridan Opera House, Saturday, 12:15 p.m. Both Fitoussi and Bergreen will be at the screenings.
At present, Aki Ra has earned accredited, international, de-mining training; leads his own team of Cambodian de-miners; is credited for de-mining over 50,000 land mines (including bombs, artillery shells, claymores, grenades, and other such ordnance); and is the curator of the Cambodia Landmine Museum and Relief Facility (CLMMRF). In 2010, he was honored as one of CNN’s Top Ten Heroes.
Though it seems Aki Ra’s story of redemption couldn’t be further from Telluride, in both its context and geography, in a way, it started right here – with a Mountainfilm connection and a few serendipitous events.
In 2000, Canadian photojournalist Fitoussi, who is executive producer of A Perfect Soldier, traveled to Cambodia to shoot a photo essay documenting the footprint left by the Khmer Rouge on that country. By chance, Fitoussi met an Australian backpacker who told him he had to meet Aki Ra.
“It’s funny,” Fitoussi says, “because if it wasn’t for her recommendation, I would’ve missed this day that ended up changing the next 13 years of my life.”
Fitoussi met Aki Ra, then spent ten days clearing land mines with him and photographing him at work. At that point, Aki Ra still defused most land mines by hand. He had first learned how to clear land mines in the early 1990s when the UN Peace Keepers came to Cambodia, using metal detectors to locate them. But when the UN left, he continued clearing mines with whatever he could find – often a knife, Leatherman or stick.
Throughout the years, Aki Ra began saving some of the mines and other war relics that he found in the jungle and small villages where he worked. Tourists, especially those visiting nearby Angkor Wat, showed interest in his collection so he started an ad-hoc museum.
“He had everything,” Fitoussi recalls, “lots of land mines he had cleared by hand, RPG shells, water mines, AK-47s, M-16s,” and the list went on. Fitoussi shows incredible respect and awe for Aki Ra and his work, but also chuckles as he honestly recalls the museum. ‘It wasn’t like a museum like you and I know,” he says. “It was a bunch of huts and piles of weapons all over the place with Post-it notes on them.”
During this first visit, Fitoussi became immersed in Aki Ra’s world, and Aki Ra asked him if he could help make the museum “a real museum.” Fitoussi saw the potential and thought, “Why don’t we make this guy a real museum with a ceiling and lights? We could turn this museum into a vehicle for raising money for land mine victims and de-mining efforts.”
Fitoussi told Aki Ra, “Sure, but I have no idea how to help you; I’m a photographer.”
Fitoussi went back to Canada and started the Cambodian Landmine Relief Campaign to try and raise money for Aki Ra’s museum. “It was so grassroots,” Fitoussi says. “ I was going to schools trying to raise like $50 and $100.”
While trying to raise money, Fitoussi connected with a man named Josh Peace who had spent five days in Cambodia filming Aki Ra. The two combined their experience and passion (for this seemingly impossible mission, worlds away) to produce a 15-minute film. They called it Aki Ra’s Story. Fitoussi recollects that is was more like a public service announcement.
With that film in hand, Fitoussi kept at his grassroots fundraising and in 2003 happened upon an old family friend (Telluride resident Beverly McTigue) who insisted he submit his film to Mountainfilm in Telluride – a festival and place with which he had no familiarity. A phone call later, Aki Ra’s Story was submitted, and soon accepted.
McTigue sponsored Fitoussi to come to Mountainfilm that year (and a few other years, including this year), and recalls, “He had no idea what he was getting into.”
Before he knew it, Fitoussi was standing at the front of The Nugget Theater answering questions about the film. He explained that the vision for the museum went beyond education and the documentation of history, but more importantly included a facility to feed, clothe and care for child landmine victims, as well as provide support and training for de-mining efforts. Aki Ra was already doing some of this work, from his house and a few shanty-style huts, but dreamed of an established place, “a museum” from which to facilitate his projects.
Fitoussi recalls a gentleman in the audience asking a very simple, yet poignant question. He asked, “How much do you need?’
Awestruck, Fitoussi met the man after the film and was given his card. He told Fitoussi to call. Fitoussi looked at the name on the card, Tom Shadyac; it didn’t ring a bell.
The next day, Fitoussi boarded a plane back to Toronto. He says, “I’m sipping my coffee and I’m almost finished reading Rolling Stone, and there is this article about a new Jim Carey movie called Bruce Almighty. I see in the body of the text – ‘Bruce Almighty, by the powerhouse comic, writer/director/producer: Tom Shadyac.’”
Fitoussi pulled the card out of his pocket, looked at the card, looked back at the magazine, looked back at the card, and thought, “No way.”
Needless to say, Fitoussi got the seed money he needed for Aki Ra’s museum and in 2007, after four years of endless obstacles, the doors of The Cambodian Landmine Museum and Relief Center opened. When talking about the series of events leading to the completion of the museum, Fitoussi is still in disbelief. “It’s so beautiful that this started out in Telluride in 2003,” he says, “We’re all in this spider web together and that’s the cool thing about Mountainfilm.”
Now, eight years after that pivotal Mountainfilm moment, Fitoussi is back to show A Perfect Soldier, a more complete story of Aki Ra. He describes the film as, “a visual poem about the life of Aki Ra…. The story that one person can make a difference, despite what odds are against them.”
We have learned from past and present heroes, like Aki Ra, that ordinary lives an be extraordinary. And, it is the choices these exceptional individuals make that are celebrated at Mountainfilm. This year, with A Perfect Soldier, we’ll celebrate both Fitoussi and Aki Ra’s choices to do good.