Doc tells of “Perfect Soldier” combating land mines

Aki Ra, “The Perfect Soldier”

“A real-life ‘Hurt Locker’ with more tension” is the reaction audiences have had to “A Perfect Soldier,” says producer/editor Jonathan Lacocque of the documentary he made with director John Severson of Smiling Toad Productions.

“We’ve seen the film now several times in theaters and with an audience, and there’s no experience like it,” he says.

“A Perfect Soldier” tells the story of Aki Ra, who planted landmines in Cambodia in the ‘70s as a child solider for the Khmer Rouge.

Now Ra dedicates himself to combating the scourge that mines and unexploded ordinance continue to be for his country, running a demining program and an orphanage as well as a landmine museum.

The doc premiered this month at the Cinequest Film Festival in San Jose, California, where it was an audience award finalist.  It screens March 31-April 1 at the Vail Film Festival in Colorado, and has its Chicago premiere April 30 at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Severson met Ra during post-college international travels in 2005.  “John was struck by all his efforts to help his country and his people,” Lacocque says.

“John recognized that Aki Ra is a person whose inspiring story should be shared with as many people as possible.  Aki Ra’s story proves that no matter who you are or where you’re from, you can make a positive difference in the world.”

Aki and director John Severson (center) at a demining site

Returning to Chicago, Severson approached childhood friend Lacocque (currently a producer/editor for WGN Creative Services) about making a film on Ra.  

They formed Smiling Toad Productions and raised $12,000 in donations from family and friends to cover their travel to Cambodia with DP José Rios.

They connected with documentarian Richard Fitoussi, whose Cambodia Landmine Museum Relief Fund supports Ra’s work.  

Fitoussi and his producing partner, Brooks Bergreen, became executive producers of “A Perfect Soldier.”

Filmmakers immersed themselves in the culture

“What was originally going to be a month became two months of filming,” Lacoque says.  They filmed in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Battombang, Pailin, and elsewhere in Cambodia in 2007.

“We were all struck by the dichotomy between the extraordinary beauty of Cambodia’s countryside and her culture and the country’s extreme poverty,” Lacocque says.

“While shooting, we made sure to take part in the Cambodian experience as much as possible… We ate turtle, cobra, spiders, fire ants, and pig intestines.”

They struggled to break through Ra’s rehearsed presentation for journalists and really capture his story.  “Ultimately, we must have interviewed him ten times,” Lacocque says. “It wasn’t until the Cambodian New Year that we got an interview where we knew we had truly captured Aki Ra.”

Editor Chris Parkhurst did two cuts of A Perfect Soldier with two different writers before prior obligations took him off the project.  Writer Clara Lehmann’s script became the basis for Lacocque’s final cut.

David Kaduk handled sound design and mix with support from Chicago Recording Company; Melissa Burns did color correction and Jesper Kyd composed the score. 

At 56 minutes, they’re aiming the film for broadcast as well as home video and online distribution.