Documentary film gives land rights activists a voice

Land rights activist Tep Vanny
Land rights activist Tep Vanny, as seen in a screenshot from the film "Even a Bird Needs a Nest". PHOTO SUPPLIED

Documentary film gives land rights activists a voice

Although he’d been filming in Cambodia for eight years, Parisian filmmaker Vincent Trintignant-Corneau first came across Phnom Penh’s Boeung Kak community when shooting a fiction movie in the area.

He and his wife, director Christine Chansou, were struck by the Boeung Kak residents’ distress, and they asked prominent activist Tep Vanny if they could follow her with their camera. Eager to get word out about the campaign, she agreed. The resulting documentary, Even a Bird Needs a Nest, will premiere in Cambodia at Meta House this evening.

Chansou said: “We didn’t need to ask people questions – everybody wanted to talk. We just put the camera in front of them and they pushed forward to come and tell us about the situation.”

The Boeung Kak 15 and supporters have been protesting for their land rights since 2007, when the Municipality of Phnom Penh granted a 99-year lease of their neighbourhood to a private developer. They are some of the most prominent land activists in the country.

But it wasn’t long before Trintignant-Corneau and Chansou realised that forced evictions aren’t a problem unique to Boeung Kak.

Trintignant-Corneau and Chansou spent six months documenting some of Cambodia’s biggest human rights violations. They followed Tep Vanny through the Boeung Kak protests, as well as the CNRP politician Mu Sochua, who took them to other forced eviction sites in Kampong Speu and Battambang. Aiming to tell the story purely through the voices of those who have lost their homes, the filmmakers refrain from using a voiceover.

The end product, Even a Bird Needs a Nest, has gone on to win awards at festivals including Amnesty’s Movies That Matter at The Hague, Films de Femmes in Paris and FidaDoc.

Chansou said: “People back home who’ve already watched this movie have gone on the internet to research more, and many have asked us about (the incarcerated activist) Yorm Bopha’s case. It’s really touched people – they don’t understand why people are in jail for just protesting their land.

Trintignant-Corneau said: “Nobody in the movie is against development. The main thing is that they want to be a part of the development, they want to be included. They just don’t want to lose their homes.”

Although many land rights activists have come up against force, Chansou and Trintignant-Corneau were able to film with little intimidation. In fact, the worst that happened was that police would take pictures of them, and ask them not to return. They were even able to spend five hours interviewing Prime Minister Hun Sen for the film.

Chansou said: “If anything it was the Boeung Kak people who faced intimidation, because they threatened them and told them not to speak with foreign people again. Sometimes the government would say that foreigners incite more demonstrations, but that’s not true. When we went to the provinces people were already protesting, and they’re still protesting today, with or without us.”

Tep Vanny, who will speak after the screening, said: ‘The film can help educate people about land grabbing so they know about the situation in Cambodia. It will show people the problems in Boeung Kak Lake, so more people can support us.”

Even a Bird Needs a Nest will premiere at Meta House tonight at 7pm, followed by a Q&A with the filmmakers and Tep Vanny. Entrance is free.

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