ONE of the best documentaries in recent years – about America’s “secret war” in Laos during the conflict with Vietnam – remains unseen by people in the two countries that would benefit most from viewing this film.
The Most Secret Place on Earth, made by German filmmaker Marc Eberle, now based in Phnom Penh, outlines the conflict in Laos in the 1960s and 70s, and the extraordinary silence that followed the horrifying American bombing campaign.
Eberle uses archival footage plus interviews with key figures from the era to tell about the CIA’s recruitment of Hmong hilltribe people to fight the communists in the early 60s and the massive bombing of the Plain of Jars – brutal acts that many class as “war crimes” only revealed to Congress and the American public years after the events.
This is a significant film for a number of reasons. One is because the socialist regime in Vientiane is highly conservative and so secretive that few Laotians have a proper grasp of what occurred in their homeland just a few decades ago.
This was evident at a showing of the film at the Bangkok Foreign Correspondents’ Club last month when the Lao wife of one journalist told how 13 members of her family had died in the “secret” bombing of the Plain of Jars and how good it would be to show this film in her homeland, so people could understand the scale of what had occurred and why.
Another reason why this film is important is the appalling legacy from the war. Cambodia’s small neighbour is the country most polluted by cluster bombs in the entire world. An estimated 80 million “bombies” – small unexploded devices – remain littered through the country’s north and south. At the current pace of clearance, it would take a century to remove them all. United States assistance to remove these UXOs is still pitiful, when one considers the scale of the bombing – more than 2 million tonnes dropped over a period of nine years up to the mid-1970s.
Eberle said it was “really sad” that government officials in Vientiane and major media outlets in the US were shunning his film. “Both countries, for their very own reasons, have no interest in bringing this up.”
However, the film has been shown at film festivals in the US. “It was nominated for the History Makers’ Award in New York as well as at the San Francisco film festival, but [it has not been shown] on television [in the US],” he said.
“Two years ago the film was scheduled to be screened for the opening night of the first international film festival in Vientiane at the German embassy. A week before the screening date it was suddenly censored and couldn’t be shown without any specific reason given. I realised then that the film or story was still too sensitive for the Laotian authorities.
“I met the Laotian ambassador to Germany in Berlin for the German cinema premiere a few days later and he told me that he really liked the film and said that he would help me have it translated into Lao for a Lao audience. He assured me that with a few cuts here and there the film could be screened in Laos. I replied that that would be wonderful, however I cannot be the one who censors his own film.
“It was never really clear whether the problem was Vang Pao [the Hmong rebel leader who is interviewed briefly in the film], who is still a persona non grata in Laos or whether it was because of the ongoing conflicts with Hmong or for whatever reason.
“I would be very happy if the film could be shown in Laos and if the history [of the conflict] would be taught in schools – and if somebody takes it upon themselves to cut the film accordingly, so that it can be shown without turning it into propaganda,” said Eberle.
“That is beyond my control and up to them, but I will not do it myself or censor my own work. That would be counterproductive.”
Vang Pao, who was backed by the CIA to lead an army of Hmong fighters against the communists in the 1970s, now lives in the US. He was recently embroiled in an alleged conspiracy to overthrow the Lao government, until a judge in California ruled that the case against him was too weak. Now in his late 70s, he said in the film that he fought the communists because he favoured “democracy”. But Eberle’s film pulls no punches – it tells how Vang Pao was also thought to run a network of opium and heroin trafficking from the CIA base at Long Cheng, which is still off limits to tourists in the Xaisomboon restricted zone.
The other reason why Eberle’s film is sensitive is because Laos and the US have been involved in negotiations to grant Laos normal trade relations with the US.
Peace activist Fred Branfman, the man who “blew the whistle” on America’s secret bombing in Laos, attended the screening in Bangkok.
Branfman has just released a new edition of his book Voices from the Plain of Jars, which documents the suffering of Lao refugees who fled the war in the north.
Branfman made scathing remarks about how a “criminal syndicate” – former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and presidents Johnson and Nixon – could conduct wars without telling their own people what they were doing. He feared the bombing of Laos was being replicated today with the drone attacks on supposed militants in northern Pakistan. Overall, he felt humans were “a very sick species” to allow such activities to go on without sanction.
Eberle hopes a DVD version of his film will be available next year.