Symbolism in Tom Waits’ Hell Broke Luce

I recently taught a filmmaking class to a group of students at the Lone Buffalo Foundation in Phonsavan, Laos. Since Laos is the, per capita, most heavily bombed country on the globe, I thought that Tom Waits’ Hell Broke Luce might be a good, if difficult, choice to show the concept of symbolism.

If you can’t see the video above, click here.

Well, I was right on that last count. Not only was it difficult, it was downright incomprehensible to the students. It’s an oddly uncomfortable feeling to be standing up in front of a class after showing a video that you are excited about and feel is a perfect example for a certain aspect of your lesson plan, and have the entire class look at you as if you, and the video, are from another planet. I wasn’t sure why Hell Broke Luce had flopped as an example, but the class was nearing its end so we wrapped things up for the day.

However, a few weeks later, I realized I wanted to give it another go. Symbolism is, when used well, an incredibly effective means of telling a story without the direct use of language. When effectively combined with language (in this case lyrics), it can then be even more powerful. It was worth giving it another try.

So, I spent some time thinking about the reasons why the students hadn’t connected with the video. I came up with four:

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Production Photos: Lone Buffalo Film Crew!

With all the excitement of the our film being shown at the Vientianale Film Festival (a group of Lone Buffalo students made an Unexploded Ordnance (UXO) awareness film for youngsters) I had been remiss in posting some of the photos of the crew and production.

(For photos of the students at the film festival, see here.)

I’ll make up for that now:

That’s me to the left and the wonderful James Thomas to the right. James is a journalist and volunteered to help produce the film; his wife Jackie was a volunteer English teacher at Lone Buffalo.

Lone Buffalo Vientianale 01

That’s Ms. Pa on the floor next to me. We were exploring the concept of using a low camera angle to make a subject seem larger or more powerful.

Lone Buffalo Vientianale 02

Ms. Pa again, out working on camera and audio skills:

Lone Buffalo Vientianale 03

Capturing some footage of Lone Buffalo’s girls’ soccer team. Yes, that’s a cow you see through the goalposts. Yes, there are almost always cows grazing on the soccer pitch…

Lone Buffalo Vientianale 04

The white board and the basics on the first day of class. Some vocabulary practice to the left. Teng Vue is a senior student and I generally make fun of him as much as possible…  :)

Lone Buffalo Vientianale 05

Idea generation: Student notebook when we were discussing ideas for UXO awareness. Yes, this is what happens.

Lone Buffalo Vientianale 06

Out shooting part of the first scene of the film on a remote soccer pitch to the north of Phonsavan. It was quite a beautiful day.

Lone Buffalo Vientianale 09

These are storyboards—a visual representation of what the film will look like scene by scene. No, I didn’t draw these. If I had, you would have seen badly drawn stick figures. These were drawn by Teng Vue—I’m amazed at how many of these kids can draw!

Lone Buffalo Vientianale 10

Here we are working on the second part of the film. Teng Vue to the left directing. One of our actresses Kham La in the center. Ms. Bie my camera operator in the green hat, and one of our actors, Lee Xai (hidden behind Ms. Bie).

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The crew with their permission slips from school so they could attend the film festival. Paula, one of Lone Buffalo’s English teachers is sitting in the back left. Translators Phillip (peace sign over my left shoulder) and Steve (in brown jacket in front of TV screen).

Lone Buffalo Vientianale 12

Great job, crew. Great job!

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Travel and Travail in Laos

Or should I have titled this post Travel is Travail in Laos? I’m doing a video shoot for an NGO and one of the field staff and I were headed north from Vientiane to Phonsavan—the first leg of a six leg trip. And the worst leg: ten hours of getting battered around in what was in its previous life an airport shuttle, now converted into an off-road, long-haul, urm… marvel of transportation efficiency. That is until it isn’t. Until it is driven into a ditch and you start to roll over…

Travel and Travail in Laos

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Lone Buffalo at the Vientianale Film Festival

Finally! Here is the video and some photos of the Lone Buffalo students at the 2015 Vientianale Film Festival, where they presented their Unexploded Ordnance (UXO) awareness film Haam Jap! (Don’t Touch!) to a standing room only theater!

If you can’t see the video above, click here.

Only two of the students had ever been to the Capitol, so it was quite the experience for them. It was quite a trip—nine hours on a bumpy, serpentine road. There was extensive car sickness, even with a dosing of motion sickness medication before we left Phonsavan…

Photo Lone Buffalo Vientianale

The Students (and Philip, Second From Right) Presenting Their Film


Photo Lone Buffalo Vientianale

Posing In Front Of The Vientianale Sponsor Board. That’s Paula, Another Teacher, To The Right


Photo Lone Buffalo Vientianale

The Vientianale Program


But even with all the excitement of the festival, I think the following photograph captures my favorite experience of the entire trip. Philip (one of the teachers at Lone Buffalo, my translator during the film classes, and one of my all-time favorite people in Laos) was sitting next to Kou Kham, who is all of twelve years old (and one of the actors in the film). Kou Kham had a rough time of the trip, and after a long bout of car sickness, pretty much just passed out. Of course, you end up bouncing all over, which just adds to your intestinal misery.

Philip laid him down and hung onto him so he could get some rest. Right as this happened, that orange-red Lao sun broke through the clouds and lit up the inside of the bus. The light was gone a few seconds later.

These are the kind of people I meet in Laos; These people are the reason why I keep coming back.

Photo Lone Buffalo Vientianale

Being Carsick Does That To You!


Posted in Humanitarian Photography, Travel, Videos Tagged , , |

JWPA On National Public Radio Website!

I woke up the other morning to find an email from a good friend of mine, Nathaniel. He sent me a nice little surprise: an article on America’s National Public Radio (NPR) about the man, Manophet, that was the impetus for the creation of the school in Laos, The Lone Buffalo Foundation, where I volunteer.

See the article The Lone Buffalo Cleared Unexploded Bombs And Boosted Needy Kids here.

The sad thing is in the main photo of Manophet: he’s climbing out of a bomb crater—and I knew exactly where he was. I had visited the same area last year for the Plain of Jars Project. It is an area called Ban Kai (ban=village).

I shot two short videos there, Visiting The Plain Of Scars Part #1 & #2:



While I was looking at the photo of Manophet, the first verse of Tom Waits’ song Hell Broke Luce popped into my head:

I had a good home but I left
I had a good home but I left, right, left
That big fucking bomb made me deaf, deaf
A Humvee mechanic put his Kevlar on wrong
I guarantee you’ll meet up with a suicide bomb
Hell broke luce
Hell broke luce

Hell, indeed.

Posted in Jon Witsell Photographic Arts, Travel, Videos Tagged , |