Eric Wolfram's Writing, Review of The Land of Wandering Souls

The Land of Wandering Souls

Directed by Rithy Panh

I Viewed The Land of Wandering Souls at the 44th San Francisco International Film Festival.

All my concerns -- gas prices, energy, Bush, war, emissions -- seemed trivial, after watching Land of the Wandering Souls, a film about a group of poor Cambodians who dig ditches to lay fiber optic cable. "Land of the Wandering Souls" is the most powerful documentary that I have seen in a while, and the title is worth repeating. Land of the Wandering Souls is a glimpse into a great karmic hell and into the bleak fates of a people.

So if you think you have any problems at all, watch this movie. Period. Any discomfort you have will be eclipsed by the people suffering on the screen. Wandering Souls follows a man who digs through rocks and old land mines to support his wife and eight young children. Paid a pittance to do so, he and his co workers, and even his wife and children, dig in bare feet because a pair of used shoes cost ten days pay. The patriarch of the family is missing a foot and the bottom half of his leg -- boom -- he has an artificial limb. And like any bad dream, things get worse and worse for the family and for the people who share their fate. And yet, between the sorrows and their suffering, the people manage to reveal wonderfully memorable scenes of laughter and love. To watch them enjoying their fate is to understand that we also can enjoy our fate. No matter how bleak my existence gets, I now understand that laughter and love is a medicine which can numb the deepest pain. So I recommend seeing this movie, and below are some specific details about it.

Beyond their bond of love, this family has nothing -- absolutely nothing -- except the seven children to feed. And the family is very hard working, they dig ditches with hoes, day AND night -- literally. The one-leg man toils constantly, and his wife and children help. Open sores develop on their hands until filled with pus. But they still keep on digging the ditches.

Sometimes the wife and kids stop working to beg for food. That's right, beg! Despite their diligence at the job, they don't earn enough to buy a sack of rice! While the mother begs, the kids are deep in filthy brown mud water looking for the tiny crabs that live deep in the mud. They find crabs smaller then their own hands. They get bit by leeches while looking, but it doesn't stop them. Next, they're filtering the mud water through some cloth to get the leeches. They put the leeches in a can for diner. (I'll think of this next time I'm in a swanky restaurant with "Cambodian food.")

When someone asks the mother what's for dinner and she says, "noodles with red ants." She finds a nest of ants in a tree and tries to get the ants into a bucket. Imagine trying to get a bunch of ants into a bucket! But she manages. Of course, she gets bit.

On one level, there is tremendous irony in the film because the people who are digging the ditch have absolutely no knowledge about the uses of fiber optic cable. So completely ignorant are they, that the foreman must explain it to them by referring to an ancient folklore of a wizard who possesses a magic eye and magic ears that can hear and see things all over the world. The foreman says, this cable is like that magic eye and magic ear and that people in the city can see pictures from America and send messages instantly to Europe. One worker admits, more as an excuse for not understanding then to complain, that he never even had electricity. The other workers admit the same thing. One guy said proudly, he once had a kerosene lamp, however, he couldn't afford the oil to make it work. With this, the foreman leaves them to ponder the cable, and they start looking for the mouth and ears inside the cable, and they compare the cable to a human -- this is the skin, this is the bone, this is the blood. They are completely clueless about our technology and yet they die toiling to get it under ground.

I think these Cambodian workers would go insane if they ever saw the machines that we use in America to dig similar trenches for cable, such a machine would seam incredibly ironic to them. Yet they would probably fear the machine because it could put them out of work. At least two additional scenes stand out in the film, a scene with a shaman doctor who explains to the mother why ghosts are trying to marry her in her dreams, and a scene where a monk explains their fate by saying that no one looks at them or cares about them because they are poor. Words will not do these scenes justice, so you'll have to see the movie -- chilling -- brrrrrr.

After watching the film, I know that there is a version of hell, right here, right now, on Earth. There is a land where the people wander and work and die for nothing. It kind of makes my gas price problems seem trivial.

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