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The power of documentaries

The power of documentaries

4 documentaries you should see
- Behind the walls of S-21
Oral Histories from Tuol Sleng Prison
Producer: Youk Chhang
Director: Doug Kass
Pick it up at: DVD stores around Phnom Penh and DC-CAM’s office at 66 Preah Sihanouk Blvd
- The Pepper Fields
Former Khmer Rouge living in jungle start their business by selling pepper
Produced by: FNS (Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung)
Director: Nico Mesterharm
Pick it up at: Meta House’s new location near the corner or Sothearos and Sihanouk blvds
How disabled people support themselves through vocational training.
Produced by: Handicap International France/META
Director: Chum Reap/Nico Mesterharm
Pick it up at: Meta House’s new location near the corner or Sothearos and Sihanouk blvds
- My World
A story about a 14 year-old Cambodian girl, Yin Leeda, who looks after her two brothers but has dreams of becoming a health worker.
Produced by: Support Children and Young People Watch it on YouTube. Search for “Support Children and Young People My World”

Watch documentaries
about Cambodia and the world on these sites


Funny, romantic, scary, suspenseful, action-packed; these are all words we associate with movies. But as documentaries become more popular, you can add informative and transformative to the list. Movies are not just a form of entertainment anymore; they are a highly effective way of spreading information that can change people’s perceptions and facilitate greater social change.

Examples from abroad abound (and can be bought in DVD stores around the city). An Inconvenient Truth, written by former vice president of the United States Al Gore and directed by Davis Guggenheim, was released in 2006 and raised millions of people’s awareness of climate change and helped stimulate the movement towards environmental consciousness, which has spread around the world.

Another film called Burma VJ, directed by Anders Ostergaard, was nominated for an Academy Award last year for showing the world the reality of the situation in Burma during the 2007 uprisings against the country’s military regime and the human rights abuses that occurred at that time.

There are hundreds of examples of documentaries contributing to social and political change around the world (see our list of sites where you can see them to the left). The role of documentaries in Cambodian media – and the resulting impact on society – is quickly expanding thanks to a number of organisations encouraging Cambodians to record the world around them.

“Documentaries deeply affect the audience because they document reality of youths’ lives and are a reflection of our society,” said Em Chan Makara, executive director of Support Children and Young People (SCY).

SCY has been documenting stories related to youth and children to help inform the government of the situation being faced by the country’s youth with the hope that the government will pay more attention to those problems, explained Em Chan Makara.

Cedric Jancloes, the production manager of the Equity Weekly TV show, which encourages “citizen journalism”, says that documentary is one of the most powerful mediums through which we can touch both the hearts and minds of people and bring change to society. He added that oftentimes laws are passed or changed very quickly and spreading information through documentaries helps inform people about the changes and how to deal with their impact.

Equity Weekly aims to bring political leaders closer to the populations they represent “using facts, causes, consequences and opinions”, explained Jancloes.

Nico Mesterharm, a German film and documentary producer who has been involved in making more than 100 documentaries and video features about land grabbing and evictions, human trafficking, garment workers and other major stories in Cambodia, said that “all documentaries can lead to social change in the long run”. Mesterharm, who is the director of Meta House, added that “documentaries will not necessarily change existing laws or society, but they will change the mind of people in the audience”.

One of the great things about “docos” is that they present information in a visually attractive and easily understandable way. “With the images and sound, documentaries attract the interest of the youth,” said Leng Ratanak, team leader at the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam).

Even teenagers who are too lazy to read about the Khmer Rouge can watch documentaries that have information that is easy to comprehend. “They will be more curious to search and learn,” Leng Ratanak said.

He added that people living in the provinces discussed their lives during Khmer Rouge and asked questions after watching documentaries related to the regime.

Earlier this year director Bradley Cox tried to screen his documentary, Who Killed Chea Vichea, about the murder of the now-famous labour leader in Phnom Penh. However, the city’s government denied him permission. The movie, the tagline of which is “a documentary about an untrue story”, raised questions over the way that the government dealt with the investigation of Chea Vichea’s murder.

What really separates documentaries from other movies is that they are simply a mirror for our lives, said Em Chan Makara.

“We are documentary makers ... we just note down what is happening,” Mesterharm added. “We give voice to people, and let the audience judge who’s a liar and who’s telling the truth.”


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