Maria Flood takes a look at Chris Kelly’s award-winning A Cambodian Spring, which screened at the Guth Gafa International Documentary Film Festival.

Chris Kelly’s A Cambodian Spring examines a range of issues pertinent to global life in the present day: the failures of multi-national organizations, state corruption, uneasy alliances between Church and state, and the role of citizen resistance to power. Set in present-day Cambodia, the film took 6 years to make, and it offers what Kelly calls an ‘unapologetically subjective portrait’ centred around three individuals who were caught up in the land protests that came to be known as the ‘Cambodian Spring’: the Buddhist monk Venerable Sovath, and residents and activists Toul Srey Pov and Tep Vanny.

The fact that filming took place over six years allows Kelly to offer a teleological account of the protests, beginning with the initial resistance of the residents of Boeung Kak, a lakeside area in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. In 2007, the Cambodian government, led by Prime Minister Hun Sen (in power since 1985), leased the land around the lake to the company Shukaku Inc., an organization with ties to members of Hun Sen’s political party. Land titles and land grabs have a long, violent and painful history in Cambodia. Following French colonialism, for several decades from 1930 onwards, land was owned privately and not distributed to the people. This changed in the 1950s, but when the horrific regime of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975 they confiscated all lands through land grabs, the destruction of homes, military violence, torture, and executions. The traumas of Cambodia’s history, including the genocide of 1.5 – 3 million people, are never far from the surface in this film. At several points, protesters are seen facing off with the military and the police, and they compare these agents of the state with the soldiers of the Khmer Rouge.

Yet this narrative is not specific to present=day Cambodia because the visual imaginary Kelly evokes speaks to global concerns. Kelly lends pathos to the images of vulnerable, unarmed civilians confronting faceless antagonists who are protected by helmets, shields, weapons, uniforms, and the power of a militarized state. These images conjure a global vocabulary of dissent, from Venezuela, to the Arab Spring, Ferguson, and the Parisian banlieue. The destruction of the natural environment of the lake, the theft of the villagers agrarian livelihoods, and the indifference of the bulldozers who destroy the residents’ homes all speak to the environmental chaos and greed that structure the current neoliberal communion between private profit and government indifference.

By highlighting how property, private enterprise and the state are connected in a corrupt web that disenfranchises the individual citizen, the film points to a worldwide issue: one only has to think of the recent tragedy in Grenfell Tower in London and the privatization of vast tracts of public land by local councils in that city to see that this is a larger struggle. Venerable Sovath also points to this interconnectedness when he refuses to exploit his position as a monk to ignore the villagers, saying, ‘if the people are poor, the monks will be poor’.

Kelly is firmly situated on the ideological side of the activists, evidenced through the use of their personal footage and the fact that any scenes of the government and officials are shot from the perspectives of the protestors. However, the style itself is less subjective: more ‘fly on the wall’ than the ‘fly in the soup’: we never see the filmmakers on camera, or have the impression that he is interviewing the subjects of the documentary. A graduate of the film studies programme at Queens University in Belfast, Kelly is an ardent fan of art-house cinema, citing French New Wave filmmaker Chris Marker, cinéma vérité documentary maker Jean Rouch and Russian Andrei Tarkovsky as inspirations. Tarkovsky’s aesthetic of ‘visual fugues’, abstract visual sequences overlaid with melodic, fluid musical strains that are repeated as thematic refrains, surface in A Cambodian Spring. Shots of torrents of muddied water, waving grass, leaping flames, and the sandy shoreline around the lake are accompanied by an ominous, throbbing score punctuate the political narrative.

A Cambodian Spring is a difficult film at moments, and the complex political and historical circumstances that led to the protests and to the intensity of feeling that surround them are not explored in great detail: there is no voiceover, and intertitles offer brief overviews. However, the film excels at capturing a sense of liveness, and the intense emotion and passion of the individuals in question. It also poses deep questions about how change and revolution come about in the world, and the personal cost of fighting for a cause you believe in. Venerable Sovath, who goes against the dictates of his religious superiors, is threatened, imprisoned, and ejected from the order but continues his activism both nationally and internationally. Tep Vanny, currently in prison on what appear to be trumped up political charges, says at one point that they have all lost homes, jobs, and been sent to gaol for fighting against the development and the government.

There is a tendency to assume that the marginal, the poor, those with nothing to lose are the first to stand up and fight. While this may be true in some circumstances, the case of Venerable Sovath shows that some are willing to give up their own privilege to fight for the equality of others. At one point in the film, activist Toul Srey Pov notes that ‘it’s easy to wake a sleeping person up, but you can’t wake them up if they’re only pretending to be asleep’. This film is a call to wakefulness and action, not only on the part of the desperate, but also from those who pretend to sleep, who have a lot more to give, and perhaps to lose. 


Maria Flood is a lecturer in Film Studies at Keele University.


The 2017 Guth Gafa International Documentary Film Festival runs 4 – 7 August. 
A Cambodian Spring is screening in the IFI Documentary Festival, followed by a director Q&A on October 1st.


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