A Cambodian Spring – Film Review by Aisling Foster
Director: Christopher Kelly
Writer: Christopher Kelly
Sometimes life is more interesting than art. This extraordinary documentary, filmed over six years, tells the story of a huge land-grab through the eyes (and sometimes mobile phones) of two impoverished women and a Buddhist monk. Their tale is a familiar one throughout the developing world. The land around Boeng Lake, near Phnom Penh, has become extremely valuable. So big business and government cronies have conspired to remove the many thousands of inhabitants who settled there after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. What’s worse, Cambodia’s land rights were destroyed by Pol Pot and never restored and, despite huge development funding from the World Bank, any compensation being offered is totally inadequate.
When the film opens in 2011, volumes of sand are already being pumped into the lake, causing homes to be flooded and rice fields washed away. Lowest in the lake community’s pecking order is the shanty town where Toul and her friend, Vanny live with their families. Their protests are met with police bullets and teams of masked vigilantes. After their men have been killed, maimed or imprisoned, Toul grabs the megaphone, leading a fury of mothers, grannies and children to confront (and sometimes shame) policemen, soldiers and construction workers to stop.
Support comes from a Buddhist monk; Venerable Sovath. There he always is with his bright orange robes, recording confrontations on his phone and explaining the situation in halting English to the world press. His belief that he must support the community is not shared by his superiors. As we watch him being hunted and threatened by the religious police, it is no coincidence to learn that the country’s dictator President, Hun Sen, is also the self-made Supreme Patriarch of the Cambodia’s Buddhist community.
Kelly, a graduate of Queens University, Belfast, has returned again and again to record the gradual desecration of a vast beauty spot into a sticky grey mudbath. His camera pushes ever deeper into the human mess, tracking in close on crowds and faces to capture each new round of hope, triumph and despair as promises are made and broken in an endless repetition of bureaucracy and protest. Not much is heard from the other side of the argument (though after ignoring demands for fair play from human-rights activists and the World Bank, what could they possibly say?) and there are occasional longeurs. Yet always the film is saved by its brightly burning stars, most notably by the stoic Toul and later, by her distraught little daughter whose screams of defiance against her mother’s imprisonment are an unforgettable part of this whole sorry story.