In the wake of winning two human rights awards, Boeung Kak lake resident Tep Vanny is now also part of a film that has scooped up the best documentary prize at the 35th Annual Film de Femmes Festival in France.
Directed by Vincent Trintignant-Corneau and Christine Chansou, Even a Bird Needs a Nest is a documentary about the notorious forced evictions at Boeung Kak lake.
Vanny was one of 13 women imprisoned in May last year after a lawyer-free, three-hour trial, convicted of defying authorities and illegally occupying land at the Boeung Kak lake site – a move widely condemned by human rights groups across the world. After protests and calls for their release, the Appeal Court set the women free in June, but upheld their convictions.
Vanny was beaten and threatened after protesting the evictions and has emerged as a spokeswoman for the swathes of residents affected. She now features as the protagonist in the 90-minute film, which provides a portrait of her and other Boeung Kak district residents from 2007, when the government awarded a 99-year-lease on the 114-hectare site to development firm Shukaku. The company then filled in the lake and evicted thousands of families.
In Even a Bird Needs a Nest, Vanny describes herself and her sisters-in-arms as drowning rats: “We cling to the floating branches around us”.
The 32-year-old was awarded the Global Leadership Award last week at the Kennedy Center in Washington, sharing the stage with former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden.
The annual award ceremony honours and celebrates women leaders around the world.
Vanny was also awarded the Amnesty International-sponsored, €5,000 ($6,523) Golden Butterfly: A Matter of ACT Human Rights Award at the Movies that Matter Film Festival in The Hague on March 27.
She told the Post that the honours she had received renewed her strength to fight for the release of fellow Boeung Kak lake resident Yorm Bopha.
Bopha was recently denied bail for the second time and sent back to Prey Sar prison after being jailed for international violence charges and being accused of ordering an attack on two motodops in Boeung Kak’s Village 22 in August last year.
Her supporters and rights groups call the charges baseless and motivated by a desire to silence her community.
Trintignant-Corneau said that after witnessing the lake being filled with sand from a nearby guesthouse, he and his wife, co-director Christine Chansou, decided to make the documentary.
“Evictions [in Cambodia] are like a disease,” he said. “When I met Vanny, her first words to me were: ‘If we don’t struggle today, we will die tomorrow”.
Chansou said she was also struck by Vanny’s strength, charisma and determination to broadcast the Boeung Kak residents’ plight to the rest of the world.
Vanny introduced the filmmakers to various women in Boeung Kak, which prompted a host of others to come forward and tell their stories.
Trintignant-Corneau said that when Vanny first watched the film, she laughed, embarrassed by hearing her own voice and seeing herself on screen.
This abated after several viewings, and she told the filmmakers, “This is my real life, and everything is true.”
Trintignant-Corneau said that during filming they received several anonymous threats. “One caller said, ‘You can’t shoot here because the houses are mine, the streets are mine and the people here are mine.’ But because we were French, [we could still film] – if we were Cambodian, it would have been different.”
After the film won the award, Chansou said Vanny was shocked.
“She asked everybody to join in the struggle for Bopha.”
The filmmakers hope to screen the documentary in Cambodia in the near future.