National Film Festival for Talented Youth | Seattle Youth Film Festival | Student Film Festival


Once Upon a Childhood

Film of the Week

A war that ended decades ago continues to impact children and families in Laos. Young people have been maimed by coming across unexploded bombs and parents that have lost limbs struggle to provide for their families.

Once Upon a Childhood was an official selection of NFFTY 2014 and won the Audience Award for the In Focus: Dramatic Docs screening.

Film of the Week is presented by Volvo Cars of North America.

The directors and other students of Harvard Westlake School have set up a website to raise further awareness about the people of Laos and the bombies issue. To learn more, please visit

Once Upon a Childhood from Cheri Gaulke on Vimeo.

About the directors:


Sarah Johanna McAllister, now a 16-year-old in Los Angeles, has aided the making of two other films. Any experience in filmmaking has been developed from summer programs and this trip to Laos. She is a classic case of an awkward high school senior who has no idea what her future holds. In her art, from sculpting to filmmaking, she prefers to say that she has an ambitious attitude rather than a perfectionist one.


Marcella Park is fifteen, a Los Angeles native, and interested in everything and anything. Her passion for media has fed her eccentricity by allowing her to explore so many different fields. Outside of her work on the unexploded ordnance problem in Laos, she spends her time covering the many and varied aspects of goings-on at her school as an editor on the Harvard-Westlake Chronicle. “Once Upon a Childhood” was the first time she did any kind of filming, and opened her eyes to a much wider world than the bubble of her daily life.


NFFTY spoke with Sarah and Marcella about documentary filmmaking.

Q: What inspired you to take on telling the bombies story?

You know, a lot of film festival people ask us this, what “inspired” us to document such a terribly sad story. Some people are born with reason to tell a story, others have it thrust upon them. Those others are us, pampered little teenagers, us. The truth is that we saw the flyers on our campus walls advertising an “Investigative Video-Journalism Expedition to Laos,” and we were like, “hell, yeah!” The reason why we took on the story was because we could. It was such an amazing adventure to meet so many incredible people. We are so grateful to be blessed with the opportunity to hear the interviewees’ stories first-hand. When it came to deciding upon a topic to focus our video on, families and children was an obvious choice because they are the reason why anyone cares. They are why we cared and cried and smiled behind the camera. In the bubble of our private school, we may not have much to fight for other than our grades, but out there in Laos, we have our families to fight for.

Q: How did the process of making this documentary change you?

Sending people on a life-changing trip during their most transformative years is a smart move by the adults. Kutos. I could list all of the values instilled by what we witnessed: the value of being alive, having family and friends, being safe, justice, compassion, acceptance. There’s a lot. But we unearthed something deeper than an understanding of ethics. If I’m being really honest, I think that it’s shame. An unspoken shame of being able to eat ice cream and complain that the sun is melting it too fast. Many people know the world is messed up, but they have their own problems. They still feel the same shame. But they can’t be dragged down by the ridiculous amount of violence and tragedy everywhere. That’s Ok. I can understand that. We are now different because we chose to face the shame, to pursue the tragedy. This is where we belong, where we can help. And we will forever be grateful to those who made that clear.

Q: Has creating a film with this kind of social justice topic inspired you to create more documentaries like it? Moreover, are you working on anything new?

Marcy has recently made a short PSA about the warnings of suicide for a summer program. Making another documentary sounds fun, but we’re activists before we are filmmakers. Most of our efforts are being put into finding more ways to help the bombie victims in Laos. The film has been effective enough to spread the word, but awareness can only take us so far. Working with our friends who made the trip with us, we have been creating a website, fundraising for individuals like the Lees, and organizing a letter campaign to Congress to increase funding towards clearing the bombies. Although we may not be making documentaries about these issues, we are each planning to help other countries. Marcy is working on a project concerning genocide in Rwanda and Sarah plans to investigate human rights issues in Cuba. We’ll see what is to come of our activism.

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