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Aftermath: The Remnants of War

Distributed by Films Media Group, PO Box 2053, Princeton, New Jersey 08543-2053; 800-257-5126
Produced by The National Film Board of Canada and Storyline Entertainment
Directed by Daniel Sekulich
VHS, color and b&, 58 min.
Environmental Studies, Military Studies, History, Human Rights

Reviewed by Jo Manning, Barry University, Miami Shores, FL

Highly Recommended  Highly Recommended   

“War has a dirty secret---it never really ends.”
The powerful message of Aftermath: The Remnants of War, based on a prize-winning 1997 book by Donovan Webster, resonates throughout this moving, exemplary documentary film. It should be seen by every human being, everywhere on earth.

The film takes us to France, Russia, Vietnam, and Bosnia (Sarajevo) and examines what war leaves behind: the ordnance, the shrapnel, the thousands of tons of unexploded grenades, bombs, and gas canisters, the landmines, the environmental pollution and the seeds of genetic disaster. All of these will kill, and continue to kill, for centuries to come. This is an issue that most people do not ponder, the continual killing that wars, supposedly “ended”, will engender.

The unexploded bombs left by the intense and massive shelling in the Verdun area in 1916---yes, World War I!---are still active underground in forests, fields, pastures, new housing developments, and cultivated farm acreage. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians were killed at Verdun and its environs, and de-miners (the men who find and safely explode the bombs) and civilians are still casualties of that long-ago pointless war. The war to end all wars ended nothing. An interesting fact: the French government stopped releasing figures on how many farmers are killed each year by these WWI bombs because it is too devastating. De-miners are killed all the time; it’s a dangerous line of work. This reviewer had no idea that this problem still existed on what used to be the Maginot line, the WWI trenches between France and Germany. We hear about landmines in the former Yugoslavia and in Afghanistan, but we don’t hear about unexploded bombs in Western Europe.

In Eastern Europe, the Russian worker whose job it is to dig up German remains (people and weapons) from the siege of Stalingrad – in which two million were killed – is profiled. The bones of German soldiers, left to rot in these fields outside Stalingrad during the long winter and spring, providing food for crows, are disinterred to be re-buried at an official site nearby. Some 2,500 German dog tags have been uncovered, and the names of the soldiers incised on a low gray stone wall reminiscent in a modest way of the United States’ Vietnam memorial in Washington, DC. And, yes, old German war veterans come to visit. The Russian worker who digs up and sorts the remains says that there will still be enough work for his grandson; he is a middle-aged man, probably not more than 45 years of age. He began his job hating the Germans whose bones he dug up, but now he says he realizes their humanity; they were men, just like him. And now he dusts the dirt from empty eye-sockets with what appears to be respect for the long-dead.

Vietnam. What a dirty war. Napalm, Agent Orange, Dioxin…and the never-ending bombing, more bombs dropped than by all sides in World War II. (Another startling fact.) The effects of Dioxin are examined in a poor village whose ground water is contaminated. Ducks are raised in these ponds and consumed by the villagers; they are extremely poor and it’s their major food source. Deformities abound. Those children who have not died at birth are blind or limbless. Babies with birth defects laid at the door of dioxin are routinely abandoned by their parents. Government homes and hospitals attempt to care for these mites; rows of deformed unborn babies in jars line the shelves of these institutions. The deformities are excruciating; it takes a very strong stomach to view this segment. Limbless yet playful children shown running through hospital hallways are moving sights. (My reaction was sadness and anger.) These are the victims of a war that “ended” over 30 years ago. The affected genes of the Vietnamese people unlucky enough to be in the path of the American planes that dropped Agent Orange like rain from the heavens will never recover. Their human rights have been forever violated by these remnants of war.

Bosnia. Sarajevo is beginning to recover from the bombing, but the munitions left behind, the land mines and unexploded shells, will take years to clean up. (The United States is one of the few countries in the world still reluctant to ban the use of land mines.) A Bosnian de-miner – whose wife was killed by a sniper during the fighting, leaving him a widower with two young children – takes viewers on his rounds digging up bombs and mines. His children are interviewed and express their fears for the danger of his job; they don’t want to lose another parent. A postscript tells us that a Norwegian de-miner, a volunteer from an international organization who worked with the Bosnian, was killed soon after the film was shot. The Bosnian, we are told, decides to take a safer job in Sarajevo.

This film is powerful and affecting because it shows human suffering close up and personal, and impresses upon the viewer that the aftermath of violence on a grand scale, the phenomenon called war, is dirty. It continues to kill, to maim, and cause horrific damage and suffering to our fellow humans on this planet. It is an anti-war film that, however, does not hit anyone over the head. It says what it has to say crisply, cleanly, and artistically. The National Film Board of Canada is a superb film producer. They make watchable films! Films dealing with such life-and-death issues can go over the top, can go on too long, can turn off the viewer, and can backfire on the makers, no matter how strong and necessary their story, how compelling their witnesses and their footage. Aftermath: The Remnants of War, succeeds because its makers know how to tell a story well and dramatically, how to persuade without histrionics. This is a fabulous, beautifully made film.

Very highly recommended. Some sequences may cause distress to viewers, especially the young, but not limited to them.

Awards (all 2002): Gold Camera Award US International Film &Video Awards; Special Jury Award Houston International Film Festival; Wilbur Award Best Theatrical Documentary; Bronze Plaque Columbus International Film &Video Festival; Special Prize International Environmental Film Festival in Barcelona; UNESCO Prize/Jury Prize Brazil International Environmental Film Festival

Donovan Webster’s book of the same title received the Lionel Gelber Prize in 1997; this prize, given by Canada’s Munk Centre for International Studies, “seeks to deepen public debate on significant global issues by broadening the readership of important books.”