Irish filmmaker Chris Kelly went back and forth to Cambodia over the course of six years, documenting the struggle of protesters against a corrupt ruling government in what is clearly a labour of love and laudable attempt to spotlight a relatively little-known fight.
It’s an engrossing examination of honest, rank and file protesting: the little guy fighting against the big guy, kicking against the pricks but finding, too often, the pricks kick back.
A couple of narrative threads find themselves being intertwined: the first and predominant one being a pernicious act of forced relocation as the residents of the Boeung Kak lake area of Phnom Penh find themselves being forced out of their homes by a government-backed housing development. Living adjacent to a lucrative tract of land, the locals’ houses are torn down with no compensation and no provision made for those losing their homes. Kelly’s movie spotlights a couple of locals, a pair of housewives, Tep Vanny and Toul Srey Pov, with no previous experience of civil disobedience or disorder who are integral in organising and rallying the residents to protest against the bulldozing of homes and challenge the development legally.
To watch the women grow from complete obscurity to the focal point of demonstrations that snowball and, ultimately, become the focus on an entire country is a genuinely remarkable experience. It’s a reminder that much of the best work to effect positive change comes from the ground up, driven by the individuals who, despite political inexperience, have the power to inspire.
Inspiring as it is, their story is one which is punctuated by false starts and catastrophic setbacks; not that that is to the detriment of Kelly’s movie. The sense that the protesters are fighting what might be an ultimately unwinnable battle reinforces the viewers ‘desire to see coherent and positive change and makes the odds seem all the more important.
An accompanying thread, which finds itself wandering into the first, focuses on the extraordinary actions of Luon Sovath, a Buddhist monk with a reputation as a rabble-rouser among the religious authorities. In reality, a peaceful man helping provide exposure to Cambodians fighting against injustice, police brutality and corruption by helping give a voice to the voiceless. “The Multimedia Monk” as he is dubbed, attends demonstrations and rallies, peacefully filming the heavy-handed actions of the authorities at great personal risk, constantly living with the very real threat of a defrocking and imprisonment.
His ability to strike genuine fear into the hearts and minds of the authorities, plus his ability to inspire and the eminent grace with which he does it all, never becoming violent or desperate is a remarkable thing to see.
All throughout Kelly gets up close and personal with his subjects on hand-held cameras and phones giving the drama an immediacy and, in an age where most world-defining actions are scrutinised and replayed on social media, currency.
If the movie has a failing, or at the very least shortcoming, it’s that it seems to end at the most inopportune moment; just as the protest movement seems to become embroiled in infighting. I could have happily watched another twenty minutes or so to understand a little better the outcomes of the protests, but, I guess, the fight goes on.
Dir: Chris Kelly
Starring: Luon Sovath, Tep Vanny, Toul Srey Pov
Prd: Christopher Hird, Chris Kelly
DOP: Chris Kelly
Music: James Holden
Runtime: 130 minutes
A Cambodian Spring is in cinemas now.