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MAG (Mines Advisory Group) works in over 35 countries around the world to remove land mines, bombs and other weapons that remain from conflict situations.

MediaStorm was commissioned by MAG to create a documentary that profiled their work, but more importantly created a strong, compelling case for the problem they are trying to solve and the impact it has on the local population. Laos, being the most heavily bombed country in history, was chosen as the country that would best represent MAG's work.

MediaStorm's approach was to first and foremost create an intimate, character-driven narrative that focused on those affected most by the problem and then through that narrative tell the story of the work MAG does, giving it a sense of validity and urgency.

Our goal was to take the viewer on a journey through the lives of Laotians personally affected by unexploded ordnance, showing the physical and psychological turmoil they go through on a daily basis, creating a deep sense of care and responsibility in the viewer and ultimately a desire to take action.

Client: MAG America
Published: October 13, 2011

Webby (Honoree)
Public Service and Activism
NPPA's Best of Photojournalism (Honorable Mention)
Feature Multimedia Story
The Challenge
The greatest challenge on this project, as it is with most, was finding compelling subjects with powerful stories and then combining those stories with the history of the problem and the informational side of what the organization does in a way that is captivating.

We were dealing with a massive issue with lots of historical elements and wanted to lay a strong historical foundation for the issue while still telling an intimate, character driven narrative that viewers could relate to.

With less than a week in the field, finding our subjects and then gaining intimacy with them in such a short period of time was a giant hurdle. This problem was compounded by the language barrier and the fact that we had a government escort with us at all times monitoring what our subjects said and the questions that we asked. Not to mention that we were doing our subject interviews on location in very noisy conditions. Wooden huts and a barnyard like environments made for very challenging conditions for getting great audio.

Another challenge was that we faced the same dangers our subjects deal with every day, bombs. Just walking through the farmland and in and around the villages was dangerous. On one occasion we literally walked right over a half exposed bomb on our way to a demolition site without knowing it and it had to be destroyed later that day.

Working with the demolition teams took great focus and care on our part as we were dealing with very dangerous items of unexploded ordnance and the live explosives they used to destroy them. We wanted to get as close to the explosions as possible for the greatest amount of impact, but needed to be safe as well.

Surviving the Peace: Laos
Surviving the Peace: Laos

Surviving the Peace: Laos

Surviving the Peace: Laos

The Solution
In order to tackle such a large story with so many elements in such a short period of time, MediaStorm decided that a two person team would be most effective. MediaStorm Director of Photography and Producer, Rick Gershon, worked alongside Director of Photography Nathan Golon in the field.

With less than a week scheduled in country for reporting, the two person team allowed us to double our efforts in gathering content when needed and combine our efforts in other situations.

The solution to finding a great subject really started before travelling to Laos. We worked very closely with in-country staff to identify potential subjects that met the criteria that we were looking for before we hit the ground. This allowed us to narrow down our options before arriving and saved us valuable time that we could then use for gathering content. It still took two solid days of pre-production interviews with victims of bomb accidents before we found the right subject.

In order to pull off a lot of the dangerous shots we wanted without actually putting ourselves in harms way, we utilized a tiny HD camera called the GoPro HD. This allowed us to get a camera very close to the explosions for maximum impact and allowed us to mount the camera to various items like their metal detectors and vehicles. The camera has a very sturdy, waterproof outer shell which helped protect it from flying debris. On one occasion the camera was actually knocked off of the tripod by shrapnel but still kept running.

To deal with the super challenging audio issues on this project, we used several different microphone set ups to achieve the results we wanted. For the on location interviews we brought a portable boom pole that allowed us to mount a Sennheiser ME66 shotgun mic directly above our subjects heads, pointing down, allowing us to isolate a majority of the unwanted noise surrounding us. We also ran a hard line lavalier to our subjects. This proved to further isolate the noisy surroundings and since it was hard line we didn't have issues with interference from foreign frequencies. For ambient sound while on the move we used the Rode Video Mic Pro. This allowed for a smaller, more portable camera rig and elevated the quality of sound greatly over the 5D Mark II's internal microphone.

In film making, when dealing with the aftermath of an event that has already happened, it is important to give a strong picture of that event that places the viewer in the moment and allows them to feel the horror and terror of what it was like. We felt this was key in allowing the viewer to care and feel a sense of responsibility for the plight of this nation and the individual residents we were profiling. Especially given the fact that this was a war that we as a country waged and the bombs that are still in Laos are American bombs.

In order to do this we spent a large amount of time finding compelling and powerful stock footage from the Vietnam war. We felt this archival footage really gave a window into the violence and destruction of the war while allowing the viewer to understand a vital part of the story that we had no ability to capture ourselves being that it took place over 30 years ago.

The Results
The final product is a 23-minute documentary that combines an intimate vignette of a family that were victims of a bomb accident, a farmer whose land was cleared by MAG, and an in-depth look at the history of the conflict and the work that MAG has undertaken in Laos.

The film premiered on October 13, 2011 at an event for donors in Washington, DC. A shorter version of the film was made for conference presentations and a viral campaign. The shorter version is regularly used by the State Department now as part of its awareness campaign and MAG presents Surviving the Peace: Laos at its events as well and considers it to be the "foundation" of their communication strategy moving forward.

HDNet, a cable television network with 26 million subscribers, licensed Surviving the Peace: Laos for air in North America. Upon its premiere on "World Report with Dan Rather" in December 2011, a viewer was inspired by the story and offered to provide support to the family in the film, becoming the third person to do so. Here is what he said, "If there is any way that I can atone in some small way for America's destruction of this family's life with our stupid bombing program during the Vietnam war I would be grateful."

About the Client
Mines Advisory Group (MAG) is an international organization that saves lives and builds futures through the removal and destruction of landmines, unexploded ordnance, and other weapons remaining after conflict. Since 1989, MAG has worked in over 35 countries and was a co-laureate of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997. MAG’s leading priority is to protect the lives and well-being of the most vulnerable individuals in contaminated areas, by providing risk-education and removing deadly weapons. Equally important, we focus on development by clearing land in affected areas to open access for agriculture, water, schools, hospitals, and roads. By listening to and collaborating with local communities, MAG concentrates on clearing areas that have the largest humanitarian impact that will enable local populations to propel themselves to economic growth. MAG’s goal is to build capacity within the country by creating local leaders who will be the future of humanitarian mine action. MAG America is a 501 (c)(3) organization that raises funds and awareness for MAG’s life-saving work from the American community, which includes individuals, corporations, foundations, and government donors.
Surviving the Peace: Laos

Surviving the Peace: Laos

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