The documentary film “A Perfect Soldier,” directed by John Severson, is an emotionally charged exploration of one man’s mission to deactivate landmines in Cambodia, many of which he himself helped plant as a child soldier under the control of the Khmer Rouge followed by the Vietnamese army. It is described by distributer Cinema Guild as “an inspiring documentary about one man’s journey from child soldier to international hero.” The film’s deft portrayal of the problems facing post-conflict Cambodia juxtaposed with Aki Ra’s determined effort to effect change through de-mining and aiding Cambodian youth is indeed inspiring. Yet the intimation that the film chronicles Ra’s struggles to transition from child soldier to hero is misleading, and may perpetuate an already hazy understanding of what child soldiers endure and the difficulties they face when reintegrating into the society they once tormented.
The film begins with a strong visual depiction of the horrors faced under the Khmer Rouge and Aki Ra’s first hand account of life as a child soldier. It seems significant that Aki Ra positions himself in a tree as he recounts his past, almost as though the child in him remains. Viewers alternate between this innocent, childlike positioning and images of children in prison and mass graves, all the while listening to an account that highlights the horrors he faced and illustrates his psychological vulnerability. For instance, he says that war “was scary, but a little fun,” underscoring how children may not fully grasp the reality or consequences of what is going on around them. Yet the psychological aftermath of Ra’s experiences, which one would expect to be significant, is glossed over as the film transitions to a third person narrator who provides a relatively brief timeline of Aki Ra’s “journey” from child soldier to his first de-mining experiences with the United Nations. There is no mention of what, if any, action was taken or difficulties encountered when Ra shifted from role of soldier to mine de-activator. This is problematic given that many child soldiers around the world encounter varying levels of difficulty when leaving their role as a child soldier. If children are psychologically vulnerable, then forcing them to commit unthinkable atrocities and normalizing a life of violence would inevitably have dire psychological and social consequences. Charles London, in his book One Day the Soldiers Came: Voices of Children in War, has interviewed countless children in conflict from around the world. Many of them who participated as soldiers talk of their difficulty to reintegrate because they either no longer know how to relate to people as they did prior to war, or because society rejects them, knowing these children took part in inflicting misery. Whether Aki Ra did or did not experience this is unclear, as very little attention was paid to that period of transition in the film. The majority of the film instead focuses on his de-mining activities, his attempts to aid Cambodian children, and the effects of the Khmer Rouge on the Cambodian people today. Though some effects from his past come to surface during this latter portion of the film such as nightmares, anger, and a desire for vengeance, his struggles remain overshadowed by the film’s larger message, that of his heroic work to deactivate landmines and help change Cambodia’s future.
Just as the initial portion of the film played with juxtaposing images, the portion of the film focusing on Ra’s current work often switches between images of a happy home life with a beautiful wife and children, tense moments in the field where he uncovers and deactivates landmines with crude tools such as an ax or pocket knife, and images of suffering in Cambodia today such as people missing limbs and children living on the streets. Ra’s heroism is clear in his willingness to put his life on the line daily to prevent injuries and death, as well as his dedication to taking in children and providing for them food, shelter, and an education. When positioned along side what is described as “a society in post-traumatic stress,” Ra’s actions seem to in fact strengthen the images of pain and suffering occurring around him, pushing the viewer to empathize with the Cambodian people and applaud Ra’s efforts.
As a historical artifact, this film delves deeply and deftly into the trauma experienced by Cambodia and their ongoing struggles to cope with a violent past. It lacks, however, in its ability to convey the complexity of a child soldier’s transition to post-war life and what would have happened to enable Aki Ra to become the man he is today. Its focus on Ra’s heroism gives hope for what could be, but one must be careful not to assume that all child soldiers will have equally or even nearly as successful experiences. As a classroom tool, this film poses a great many possibilities and potential pitfalls. It seems an excellent source to explore post-conflict Cambodia and the challenges faced by the country and its people today. Yet if the aim is to help students understand the journey child soldiers face as they transition into post-war life, the film would necessitate prior discussion, awareness, and understanding of the phenomenon. The film would also be a useful means of pushing students to think critically about how we portray and think about different issues, and how media can influence our perceptions, particularly if we have no prior knowledge of a subject.
Edited by Rebecca A. Nedostup
(c) 2013 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 6, Spring, 2013. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal's not-for-profit educational open-access policy.