Morten Traavik knew the idea of a beauty pageant for Cambodian land-mine victims was testing taboos: 20 women scarred by the country's decades of war parading their amputated bodies for the chance at a new prosthetic limb.
"I wanted to see if I could apply my skills as an artist … to this reality and draw attention to the issues at hand in a new way that didn't just confirm already established preconceptions of the land-mine survivors as pitiable abominations," the Norwegian theatre director said.
He might even have expected the backlash that soon followed from some local charities, as happened with his first pageant for land-mine victims in Angola the year before. What he did not expect was the government's about-face in August, 2009.
Days before a photo exhibit of the contestants was set to debut in the capital of Phnom Penh, a lead-up to the live pageant being planned for December, the Ministry of Social Affairs pulled the plug. Calling the affair an affront to Cambodian tradition, it ordered the project shuttered "immediately" and asked Mr. Traavik to leave the country. The local support he had dried up.
"When the Minister of Social Affairs himself started his own campaign against Miss Landmine," he said, "everybody ran for cover."
Miss Landmine, a new Canadian documentary that follows the project from start to finish, premiers Monday on CBC.
By the Cambodian government's best estimates, land mines still litter some 650 square kilometres of the country, a legacy of the Khmer Rouge and their fanatic efforts to keep their neighbours and enemies at bay. In its pursuit of North Vietnamese forces crossing into Cambodia, the United States dropped another 2.75 million tons of bombs on the country during the Vietnam War, many of which failed to explode on impact and remain active to this day.
Together, land mines and other old ordnance have killed or maimed some 63,000 Cambodians since the 1979 fall of the Khmer Rouge and continue to claim more than 200 victims a year.
In moving the pageant from Angola to Cambodia, Mr. Traavik knew he had to make a few changes. In a culture where modesty trumps most other virtues, the swimsuits had to go. Soft, candy-coloured gowns took their place.
With support from the relevant ministries and the government's mine-action agency, Mr. Traavik and his team set to work, scouring the country for contestants. With tens of thousands of land-mine victims across Cambodia, the women weren't hard to find. They also found some critics.
"I have the same feelings now as then," said Punk Chhiv Kek, the president of a leading local human rights group who called the pageant "a contest of suffering."
"In my personal opinion, the project is in poor taste," she said. "But at the end of the day, whether to appear or not is a decision for each contestant to make. They are, or should be, free to choose what they want."
Others were more adamant. Chris Minko, an Australian national who heads Cambodia's disabled volleyball league, took his complaint straight to the Minister of Social Affairs, suggesting Mr. Traavik be asked to leave.
"There are more dignified ways of showcasing the ability of Cambodian women land-mine survivors, such as through the many high[ly]successful and internationally recognized Cambodian programs of sport and disability," he said.
The ministry agreed. NGOs that had supported the project fell silent. A letter Mr. Traavik sent to about 20 non-government groups asking for their support also went ignored. More than a year on, local NGOs active in mine clearance and victim assistance were still reluctant to talk about the pageant for the record.
Lim El Djurado, a spokesman for the Social Affairs Ministry, said the government banned the project to protect the country's customs.
"We did not allow the contest to take place because it degrades Cambodian tradition," he said. "When you make disabled people do this kind of thing, it looks like you mock them.
"If they really want to help, they can come and provide artificial limbs and give them skills to improve their lives."
Mr. Traavik believes he was offering the women something just as valuable. By giving them a chance to be part of something typically reserved for the able bodied, he believes he gave them a chance to reclaim their pride and self-respect. For proof, he offers the women themselves.
"If they had felt the same way as the government," he said, "they would never have taken part."
Among the women who did was Dos Sopheap, who posed for her photo shoot with a toy machine gun.
From a soft black gown cut just below the knee, a single leg runs to the floor. She balances herself against a whitewashed wall with one arm and holds the gun in the other. Composed and confident, she offers up only the slightest smile, an image of playfulness and power all at once.
Fourteen years ago, at the age of six, Ms. Dos was headed fishing with some neighbours when they ran into a Khmer Rouge soldier, one of a band still holding out in a few remote pockets of western Cambodia. When the soldier tossed a grenade their way, she recalled, the group ran for cover. Someone stepped on a land mine. Her father lost a hand. Ms. Dos lost her left leg.
As that young girl grew older, she learned to hide.
"I didn't want to go to school. When I saw other kinds wearing shorts, I really wanted to but couldn't. … All I could do was cry," she said. "I felt like I should not have been born."
Now, she said, "I have hope about going back to school. I believe I can do things like the others."
In December, the Miss Landmine team slipped back into Cambodia unannounced to officially crown Ms. Dos and present her with a new, custom-fitted prosthetic leg. When the government threw the project out of the country, Mr. Traavik simply moved the pageant online. Some 2,300 votes came in from more than 30 countries.
Miss Landmine captures the trip on film. As with the pageant, though, the government has vowed to bar any attempt to screen it in Cambodia.
Stan Feingold, the movie's director, finds the government's stand hard to fathom.
"The Miss Landmine project has a very positive message," he said. "Disabled people don't have to hide in their homes and be ashamed of their injuries. Disabled people can contribute in many positive ways to Cambodian society. I don't understand how the Cambodian government could disagree with that."
Special to The Globe and Mail
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