A CAMBODIAN SPRING (Chris Kelly, 2017)
80 Wythe Ave. at North Eleventh St.
Wednesday, June 7, 7:30, and Sunday, June 11, 8:30
Festival continues through June 11
It would be easy to assume that Chris Kelly’s documentary A Cambodian Spring, about a Phnom Penh community’s battle to save its village when developers move in, was part of the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, which begins June 9 at Lincoln Center and IFC Center. However, it is actually being shown June 7 and 11 at the Wythe Hotel in the twentieth annual Brooklyn Film Festival, which began June 2 and continues through June 11. Winner of the Special Jury Prize for International Feature Documentary at the Hot Docs International Documentary Festival, A Cambodian Spring follows two women and one man as they lead the fight to protect their homes in Boeung Kak after Prime Minister Hun Sen cancels the World Bank’s Land Management program and makes a deal with Shukaku Inc. to develop the area. The new plan is based on eliminating the large lake around which many people live, struggling to survive day to day. Leading the charge against the land grab are Tep Vanny, a born activist; Toul Srey Pov, a quiet mother who suddenly finds herself thrust into the spotlight, rallying supporters using a megaphone; and the venerable Luon Sovath, a Buddhist monk and video activist whose pagoda threatens to defrock him if he doesn’t back off challenging the government. “They said that a monk shouldn’t care about the problems of the people,” he says, referring to the other members of his pagoda, “but I disagree.” The people of Boeung Kak are mired in abject poverty; their livelihood, fishing, has been taken away from them, and now Shukaku workers have shown up with equipment ready to tear down the decrepit shacks the villagers call home. “Soon, all the poor people will be gone. Only the rich will be left,” Pov says. When self-exiled opposition party leader Sam Rainsy returns to Cambodia to run against Hun Sen, the citizenry finds new hope, but then infighting threatens their cause. “If we have unity, compassion, and trust, then we will be strong and no one will break us,” Pov explains. “But if we don’t trust each other, then how can we work together? It will all come to an end. We won’t succeed.”
Socially conscious writer-director Kelly spent nine years preparing, filming, and editing A Cambodian Spring, capturing Sovath’s long walk to the courthouse, the Shukaku workers flooding villagers’ homes while emptying the lake, and press conferences with a nervous Pov. It’s a one-sided affair that doesn’t even pretend to be objective, and at two hours, it is too long, with several repetitive scenes that serve as overkill in order to pull at viewers’ heartstrings and paint a clear line between good and evil, no matter how valid and factual it may be. That said, Kelly, who is currently at work on a documentary about slavery in the Thai fishing industry, has revealed a frightening, tragic situation, and one that is occurring all over the world. Governments make deals with corporations, leaving the poorest, most powerless of their citizens abandoned, with little food and shelter. But the story is just as much about the three protagonists, inspirational figures who decided they could not remain silent as their lives and those of their neighbors were turned upside down. “Our mouths are sealed with tape and stitched together with thread,” Pov says, but they refuse to stop fighting. All three risk their freedom and safety, but Sovath often stands out, a gentle giant in monk’s robes who can’t exactly blend in with the crowds. A documentary that will anger you and make you want to rise up yourself, A Cambodian Spring is screening June 7 at 7:30 and June 11 at 8:30 at the Brooklyn Film Festival, with Kelly participating in Q&As after both shows. The festival continues through June 11 with more than 130 narrative, documentary, animated, and experimental features and shorts and a twentieth-anniversary party at the Williamsburg Music Center.