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By Phil Hall | April 13, 2004

Trent Harris, the Utah-based filmmaker best known for the offbeat comedies “Rubin and Ed” and “Plan 10 from Outer Space,” turns very serious with his documentary “The Cement Ball of Earth, Heaven, and Hell.” In this film, Harris journeys to Cambodia and tracks the work of Aki Ra, a one-time child soldier in the Khmer Rouge who now works without compensation in clearing his country of the landmines planted in the 1970s by the American military and later by Pol Pot’s forces. Aki Ra also runs a makeshift museum detailing the landmine catastrophe in Cambodia.

To date, Aki Ra has cleared 10,000 mines; an estimated six million mines remain buried and thousands of Cambodians are killed, maimed and disfigured annually by these weapons.

As the focus of the film, Aki Ra is a strange presence. He recalls his pre-teen days of executing Khmer Rouge prisoners with a surprising grin, yet he turns evasive when quizzed about the details of the death of his parents by his one-time Khmer Rouge comrades. He has given freely of his money and home to children injured by landmines, but does not make any open statement of apology or remorse regarding his involvement in the genocide that destroyed his country. There is no mention of a wife or children, making it unclear whether he is a bachelor or whether they exist off-camera.

The main problem with this film is its inability to concentrate on the subject. Harris often wanders away from the landmine story to gain very brief yet tantalizing views of contemporary Cambodia. There are shots of women performing traditional dancers, wise monks commenting on some vague notion, a quick visit to the notorious S21 prison, an old caretaker selling Hindu trinkets in the ruins of a temple, and glimpses of a Phnom Penh bar called “Heart of Darkness” (in obvious tribute to “Apocalypse Now”). Yet with only one hour’s running time, Harris has crammed too much into the film and we seem to get a Cliff Note’s abbreviated version of today’s Cambodia rather than a genuine in-depth feel for the nation as it tries to rebuild itself after years of self-inflicted disaster.

As for the title: it is a bizarre structure (one gains admission through an open door placed the jaws of a giant demonic face at the entrance) that presents life and the afterlife on three levels, with appropriately exaggerated statues depicting the extremes of each station. Curiously, the film never gives proper time for a visit to the more celebrated Angkor Wat ruins, where Aki Ra works as a tour guide. Even more curious is the film’s use of Aboriginal Australian music on the soundtrack, which is a major distraction.

With more time (and more running time), this could have been a great film. As it stands, it is simply interesting but woefully in need of a better focus.

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