A Cambodian Spring, a new feature-length documentary by filmmaker Chris Kelly, chronicles the turbulent evictions at Boeung Kak, the political evolution of monk Luon Sovath and the protests leading up to and following the 2013 national election. Made over nine years, six of which were spent shooting in Cambodia, the film is the most intimate look yet from inside the protest movements as they grew, converged and – in the case of the Boeung Kak community – were unravelled by internal divisions. The film is making the rounds at festivals, and recently won Best Feature Documentary at the Brooklyn Film Festival and the Special Jury Prize for an International Feature Documentary at Canada’s Hot Docs festival. Post Weekend’s James Reddick spoke this week with Kelly about the making of the documentary and observations from his time spent with some of the country’s key players in grassroots activism.
You’ve mentioned that you were originally supposed to only spend a few months filming for a documentary on land grabbing in Cambodia, which instead took nine years. What happened?
I had been to Cambodia in 2006 as a tourist and became fascinated by the country. I was blown away by the warmth of the people but also aware of the very dark and violent history that was shaping modern life there. I was drawn to the ambiguity, and while there were many brilliant films and books on the Khmer Rouge and Cambodian history, I felt at that time there was not much looking at daily life, and so I decided to try and raise some funding to make a documentary about land grabbing and forced evictions.
I went to Cambodia in 2009 to find suitable participants for the film before we were to bring out a cinematographer and spend about three months filming the entire documentary. However, once I was there it became apparent that there was a much better way to understand this story, and that was to be there every day with the film subjects, to be able to document things as they unfolded in real time, rather than simply interview people about it after the fact. That is why there are no sit-down interviews or voice-over in the film. As I spent more and more time there, months turned into years and then it was 2015 before I finally felt like we had filmed everything we needed to.
The film ends up focusing primarily on monk Luon Sovath and Boeung Kak residents Toul Srey Pov and Tep Vanny. Was that a decision you made early on in the process? What drew you to them?
I met Luon Sovath not long after I arrived in Cambodia in 2009. He was filming an event with his little Nokia smartphone, and I thought it would be really interesting to make a film about another filmmaker, to be able to reflect on the whole filmmaking process and to be able to see what kind of difference, if any, documentary films can make. I thought his response to what was happening around him was really interesting. He is an artist, he paints the stories of Buddha on the walls of his pagoda. When his village, including members of his family, became involved in a violent land dispute [in Chi Kraeng in Siem Reap] with a well-connected businessman, his response was to put down the paintbrushes and pick up a camera, and he has never looked back. He is still filming and creating today, using social media to get his documentaries and his message of “engaged Buddhism” out there.
Boeung Kak is the most high-profile forced eviction in Cambodia, so it made sense for me to film there. Srey Pov, Tep Vanny and a handful of other women were the community representatives, and they were clearly very strong individuals, both in their personalities and in their commitment to what they were doing. I was drawn to these two in particular because of the dynamic between them – best friends, and both so capable and intelligent, and yet vulnerable and very human as well. They are mothers, they have families to look after, and yet they sacrifice all that in order to stand up and fight together against this very destructive and violent development model that is sweeping across Cambodia. It was a huge honour for me to be allowed into their lives in such an intimate and trusting way, and the same of course goes for Venerable Sovath.
While the shooting for the film finished in 2015, it is remarkable how the same themes and many of the same people are at the forefront leading up to the 2018 national election. Luon Sovath, for example, continues to broadcast videos critical of the ruling party, and Tep Vanny remains in pre-trial detention. Do you have any plans to return to Cambodia for a follow-up project?
I was very fortunate, I guess, in that the people I decided to follow ended up becoming such key players in events not only in 2013, but also now. I like to think that part of that fortune comes from my commitment to the project and being willing to spend nine years working on one project. I could have finished the film after the ‘Boeung Kak 15’ were released in 2012, but I felt there was more to the story at that time.
When [former opposition leader Sam] Rainsy returned and we saw the protests in the lead up to and after the national elections, it was apparent to me that this new voice of dissent and protest was directly inspired and influenced by the land rights protesters like Tep Vanny, Srey Pov and Luon Sovath, so I had to continue filming until some more satisfying resolution was found.
The film is intentionally structured in a way that it should still resonate and feel relevant even now. I had a sense of the cycle of history in what happened with the protests and the deal taken by the opposition, and I wouldn’t be surprised if something similar happens at next year’s elections.
We didn’t want the film to end with those very predictable ‘where are they now?’ title cards, so we tried to structure it in a way that the audience can understand where everyone is at, even though filming ended in 2015. And I think, sadly, that is the case: Rainsy is back in exile, the venerable Sovath still films everything, and Vanny is in prison again.
I do plan to return to cover the elections next year. I’m not sure yet in what capacity, but hopefully as a shorter follow-up film to this one.
One of the themes especially prominent in the second part of the film is division within social movements, especially among the Boeung Kak community. How do you explain this fracture?
It is difficult to give a clear answer about the division. There is an old saying – ‘The revolution devours its young’ – and in some sense this is true of the Boeung Kak community too. I think that human emotions like fear, jealousy, greed and despair got in the way of the solidarity of the group. I also think that outside influences, both benevolent and malevolent in their intentions, had a role to play. The singling out of Tep Vanny as the leader helped cause divisions, and I think the government and developers were able to successfully leverage these divisions. I don’t know for sure what happened, but I dont think there is any simple answer either. Life is more complex and ambiguous than that.
We always look for these either/or, black/white, good/evil dichotomies, and I think that is a really unhelpful and oversimplified way of looking at the world. There is good and bad in everyone, and we are all human after all. We should be more ready to forgive each other of our mistakes and not lose sight of the bigger picture.
Is there any hope for audiences in Cambodia to see this film? Have you tried to organise any screenings or to figure out a way to disseminate it?
Yes, absolutely, we will try to show it officially in Cambodia later this year. We are in the process of organising that now. We want the film to be seen by as many Cambodian people as possible, both in Cambodia and abroad. The best thing for people to do is to go to the Facebook page and sign up for the newsletter to keep up to date on festival screenings. You can also follow us on twitter @cambodianspring.