Far removed from the ancient temples, ruins, and jungles that millions of tourists flee to every year, A Cambodian Spring details an epic protest staged by the community of Boeung Kak, Cambodia against their government. Having been promised proper land titles and ownership, the locals agreed to their land being measured. Following this their properties and land were seized and they were evicted with little to no compensation or warning. ‘Our homes do not exist in their plans’ one impassioned protestor cries. As the lake that they live upon is filled with sand and drained, making way for new urban infrastructure, this displaced community takes it upon themselves to act back against the aligned corporations and government who are destroying their village. What ensues is a series of protests that lasts over 6 years and includes civilians being shot and arrested by the police and continual illegal acts by the government.
Irish filmmaker Chris Kelly shows a similar resilience as he spends 6 years capturing the struggles of several individuals, including a single Mother and a Buddhist monk who operates as a self-titled ‘video protestor’. With roots as a cinematographer, Chris Kelly reveals much of the beauty of Cambodia in sunsets over the lake, breezy pastures, and in the calmness of woodland settlements. Yet, there is also a sort of ugly truth in the images; the lake becomes a vast plain of concrete, peace is replaced by violent protests, and the people of the film become more melancholic as they sink further into poverty.
It is difficult to find a sequence within this documentary that does not feature a camera capturing somebody else: the camera acts as a tool wielded by many. Over the years of protests and years of arrests of members of the public, the government continually tries to obstruct truth, blocking witnesses from accessing courts to provide statements and hounding people they deem a threat to their grand plans. The camera thus becomes a tool of resistance yielded against the state officials and police. Buddhist monk and ‘video protestor’ the Venerable Luon Sovath provides secondary footage, using a variety of handheld camcorders and mobile phones to capture an intimate view of the protestors. As he is facing arrest, the first items confiscated from him are his camera and mobile phone, in response a sea of cameras arises from the crowds supporting him. He uses a more guerrilla approach as he uses covert cameras to obtain footage that Kelly could not.
Shown in the documentary, at an American conference, Sovath announces ‘these images tell the truth’, indeed in a society where the people are continually silenced by their government, having evidence of the truth is their most important resource. Kelly splices Sovath’s grainy footage with his own crisp shots, creating a documentary that is equal parts grounded, eye-opening, and ultimately tragically enticing. There is no real happy ending to the stories of the people that Kelly chooses to follow. The government remains corrupt to an extent and any victories for the Boeung Kak community are phyrric; they are at too great a cost to be worthwhile. The film ultimately deals with the problems a community faces as it is torn apart by higher powers, solidarity and loyalty are continually challenged. Fairly underreported as an atrocity; A Cambodian Spring is a film that needed to be made. Kelly does not shy away from showing struggle and strife and manages to humanise an entire group of people as they change, grow together, and grow apart throughout 6 years.
A Cambodian Spring is coming to UK cinemas on 17th May.