Lives Exploded

Have you ever lost track of a friend, and reconnected decades later? Most of the time, it’s a nice conversation, a pleasant email exchange, and that’s it — not enough of a bond to rekindle an ongoing friendship. But once in a long while, the scenario plays out differently.

Recently, I had coffee with Joan King Widdifield, a director and producer of independent films. Joan’s focus is post-war unexploded bombs – how they blow up the lives of those around them, leaving some dead or maimed, others in pieces emotionally.

I met Joan decades ago, in California. I was a psychologist, teaching a course on Female Development. Joan was a psychology intern, enrolled in the conference. We lived in a small town in Northern California, across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, five minutes from each other. We both had young children, who ended up in the same elementary school. Like most mothers with careers, we were always juggling more than we could handle, and we lost track of each other. More than twenty years later, she had no idea I had changed careers, and was now writing fiction. I had no idea she had become a filmmaker. We both had no idea we had moved 3000 miles, across the country, and again were neighbors. We met for coffee, and met again. I asked her permission to write this post, and she agreed.

Joan told me that in 2001, still living in California, she became aware that large portions of Vietnam still hold unexploded, buried bombs left over from The Vietnam War – bombs dropped by American soldiers. Deployed from planes and helicopters, or shot from launchers, many weapons don’t detonate and become “Explosive Remnants of War” (ERW), which can remain dangerous for decades. They include rockets, missiles, 1000-pound bombs, 500-pound bombs, mortars, white phosphorous shells, and cluster munitions (one “mother” shell opens in the air and hundreds of submunitions, or cluster bomblets, fly out to cover the size of a football field). About one-tenth of the 8 million tons of bombs dropped on Vietnamese soil failed to detonate. Today ERW cover about 1/3 of the land in the central provinces, populated by civilians. Children, men and women stumble into ERW and are blown up.

An unexploded bomb detonates without warning. Bodies are thrown, torn, sometimes in parts, sometimes in a bloody mist. Survivors have no preparation, no lead-time. Their lives are here one moment, scattered in fragments the next. Joan found “the horror of the problem…overwhelming.” She wondered how a parent “lives with the specter of ERW killing your child.” The direct victims explode physically, and are either terribly injured or buried in pieces. But the damage reaches even farther — their loved ones explode emotionally.

In 1982, Joan began working with survivors of trauma, and in 2002, her focus became victims of bombs in Southeast Asia. The more she worked, the more she realized that few people even knew this issue existed. In fact, just a couple of years before, she herself had been one of those people. “What I kept coming back to is: it is my country’s bombs.” Joan had never defined herself as a political activist, but that’s exactly what she became. Her professional focus turned toward raising awareness, and she continually felt driven to reach out, “to do more”.

She took classes in film school, and learned about documentaries. She studied interviewing, directing, editing. She founded Hearts and Mines, Inc., an independent production company. She put together a team, scrounged for funding, and boarded a plane. “It took four production shoots to make the 20-minute film.” The result was Rainy Season, the story of a Vietnamese family whose son exploded before their eyes.

The reception of Rainy Season has been extremely positive. Joan has presented her film at the United Nations in Geneva, and at film festivals in Paris, Brooklyn, and Edinburgh. Rainy Season won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at Woods Hole International Film Festival, as well as Best Documentary Short at Asians On Film Festival.

The first step toward solving a problem is awareness that the issue exists. Joan is committed to taking that first step, and every step that follows.


Filed under Uncategorized

4 responses to “Lives Exploded

  1. Valerie Lapin Ganley

    Thanks so much for posting this. I am eager to see the film. Are there any San Francisco Bay Area screenings scheduled yet? I recently returned from traveling in Southeast Asia earlier this Spring. I was aware that there were Explosive Remnants of War, but it was shocking to see how widespread the problem is and how many people continue to be victimized by the atrocities of the Vietnam War. You see people on the street who lost limbs as a result of ERWs, and others deformed by the widespread spraying of the defoliant, Agent Orange (but that’s another sad story). I heard horrendous stories about children being sent into the fields to find ERWs to be exchanged for monetary reward, only to have them explode by an unfortunate misstep. And it goes beyond Vietnam where there are still ERWs in Cambodia and Laos as well. Vietnam is trying to find its footing as an economic power on the world stage: there’s new prosperity and an exciting vibrancy among the industrious younger generation, yet exploited sweatshops workers make garments for American and other consumers. The quest for democratic freedoms is still being tested not always with the best outcomes. Despite these challenges, there is cause to be optimistic about Vietnam’s future as the sense of hopefulness is palatable. It’s disgraceful that the legacy of “the American War” as the Vietnamese call it lives on in the ERWs. Believe it or not, the war isn’t over.

  2. Hello Valerie, I don’t have any Bay Area screenings planned right now, but have had a lot of interest and would like to. You seem to know so much about the ERW issue. Most tourists in Southeast Asia have never heard about it. In fact, I talked to many Vietnamese people in the cities who don’t know anything about the ERW problem in their own country. You are right about the ongoing problems with leftover unexploded bombs in Cambodia and Laos. I also worked in Cambodia over three years and met with many victims and their families. (There is a good documentary about the ERW problem in Laos: Bombies.) It’s devastating. But, there are good projects helping with clearance and victim-assistance.

    Vietnam has changed so much since I started going there in early 2002. Major roads have been built, streetlights put in, buildings constructed, and even ATMs installed. You capture the scene well. There is so much excitement and progress. But as you say, the war isn’t over.

  3. valincal

    I interesting reading in today’s New York Times: Treaty Is Making Land Mines Weapon of Past, Group Says.

  4. Valerie, this is great news! Thanks for posting this. The treaty to ban anti-personnel land mines was one of the biggest successes for human security. Jody Williams, co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for the land mine treaty in 1997, recently came out with an autobiography, My Name Is Jody Williams: A Vermont Girl’s Winding Path to the Nobel Peace Prize (University of California Press). It is an interesting glimpse into how she came to value social justice and how they fought for the ban.

    Regarding the ERW in Vietnam, there are not many anti personnel land mines there. The biggest killers there are cluster munitions (“bombies,” or “BLU 24” — the ones the U.S. most commonly used in Vietnam). Failure rates for detonation can be up to 25%. There is a treaty to ban cluster munitions (98% of the victims are civilians), Many countries have signed, but not the U.S. Cluster bomblets cause most of the ERW child deaths in Vietnam. The Vietnam War era ones contain a few hundred ball-bearings that spray at a very rapid speed, often causing severe organ damage. They are very appealing-looking orbs that seem fun to play with, but can kill or maim many at one time.

    I was a delegate to one of the earliest meetings in Oslo in 2007 to work on the cluster munition ban treaty, where I met Jody Williams. Senators Leahy and Feinstein are proponents of the treaty, but the U.S. still hasn’t signed. Cluster munitions are indiscriminate weapons that are de facto land mines, except way more deadly. Now that landmine use seems to have been solved, I hope cluster bombs are next!

    Here is a short article about them, if you want to know more:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s