A Cambodian Spring

A Cambodian Spring

Image by A Cambodian Spring

Daniel Nelson

If you want to see how development can be cruelly unjust, how the dice is loaded against the poor, how powerless people can be arrogantly and dismissively treated, how politicians can use the police and thugs to protest their interests and the interests of cronies, watch A Cambodian Spring.

It focuses on two projects: the filling-in of a lake, once a Phnom Penh beauty spot, that involves the destruction of hundreds of homes, and a land clash between villagers and a private company.

You don't need to know the details of the cases. You get the picture by seeing the official who shrugs off the tears and wails of people whose homes are being flooded in front of their eyes with the words, “Development will always have some impact. If you are being affected, go to the company”; or the police who try to prevent villagers attending a court hearing; or the contractor who, confronted by angry residents, walks over to his truck and takes out a gun.

Fortunately, it's not all negative. The villagers' sense of justice and anger enables them to fight, against huge political and corporate odds: a socially-minded monk, Loun Sovath – who is involved in the popular resistance to both projects and is the centrepiece of the documentary – takes up the villagers' causes (“The villagers problems are also mine”), and runs up against the “Buddhist police” (“religion belongs to the government now”). When the conservative Buddhist authorities clamber into his car to force him to attend discussions with the government-appointed Supreme Patriarch, a village supporter tells Sovath, “Venerable, do not get out of the car. We will defend you to the death.”

Venerable runs into increasing hostility from the government and the Buddhist hierarchy, and is forced to back off several times for fear that his presence will provoke the authorities into a backlash against the people he is trying to help. He wins an international human rights award, but finally bows to threats of imprisonment and death by fleeing to the US.

As in several other films at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival (of which this documentary, filmed over six years, is part), cameraphones play a vital role in popular struggles. The intervention of foreign NGOs, the World Bank (up to a point) and the US embassy give the villagers a boost in their struggle with the government and private companies.

But although the film vividly illustrates serious flaws in Cambodian democracy its ambition overreaches itself as it tries to cover the return of opposition leader Sam Rainsy to campaign in a general election and confusion sets in. In a quickening blur of events there's no time for analysis – of the independence or subsurvience of the courts, for example, or of Rainsy's deal with the Hun Sen government.

Just as puzzling is the bitter falling out of two of the leading women campaigners, Toul Srey Pov and Tep Vanny, and a tragically sad scene in which a battling granny is hit in the face by a brick, hurled not by the police or their thug accomplices but by a rival protester. One can only be despondent at such disunity. The film hints at a psychodrama for the original campaigner, who has rejected activism in favour of looking after her family, but we are left hanging.

Equally sad is the old woman's verdict on a group of men carrying out “development” clearances : “This generation is no different from Pol Pot. He evicted millions of people. They were ignorant during the Pol pot regime, they knew no better. That's why they made their own people suffer. Your generation was sent to school to be men of insight.”

Or, as another resident says more simply as she watches the bulldozing of flimsy homes, “They're so brutal. The rich are violating the poor.”

Despite the film's gaps and sprawl, this is an important, fascinating, partisan slice of Cambodian life – and, unfortunately, of the lives of many of the 15 million people worldwide who every year lose their homes and livelihoods to lopsided “development”.


Director Chris Kelly said: “After more than nine years in the making, I am thrilled that A Cambodian Spring will have its UK theatrical release on the 18th of May. The film has been a huge labour of love for me, and I hope that the passion and care that went into making it comes through to the UK audience and creates a memorable experience.

A Cambodian Spring is for me a deeply personal film. It is an exploration of what motivates us, what gives our lives meaning, and what happens when our personal desires colour and shape our actions. It is an unapologetically subjective portrait of my time in Cambodia, of the people who shared their lives with me and of the shifting landscapes, both physical and emotional, that I found there. There is a powerful original score by acclaimed electronic musician James Holden, whose soundtrack perfectly complements the decaying landscapes of the film.”

Executive Producer Christopher Hird said: “Chris Kelly first pitched the idea of this film to me at Sheffield DocFest in 2008, so it is a real pleasure to be able to release the film in the UK - a perfect example of what Dartmouth aims to do: helping directors bring their dream to screen. The film's journey included an extended spell of editing in the loft of my house and the garnering of international recognition at numerous film festivals and so the hope now is that it will help the campaign to get freedom for one of its main characters, who is unjustly imprisoned in Cambodia.”

A Cambodian Spring will be screened at Curzon Soho on 17 May and at other UK cinemas from 18 May.




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