Ben Nicholson Reviews

Film Review: A Cambodian Spring

★★★☆☆

Winner of the Special Jury Prize at Hot Docs 2017, Chris Kelly’s A Cambodian Spring is an intimate and upsetting account of community activism and the shaping of modern Cambodia.

“This is a fake democracy,” says a resident of the area around Boeung Kak Lake in Phnom Penh, which the government has sold from under them to property developers. “And we are being silenced,” adds another. The two women are part of a group stood on the edge of the lake at dusk, looking out at the clunking machinery in the distance, slowly displacing the water into their streets and homes.

The situation seems dire, and the words desolate, but there is a steely resolve in their tone that suggests being silenced is not an option. Kelly’s decision to cut to water spraying from the machine’s sluice – an unending torrent, a grey and silty mess – suggests the road will be far from easy. The title naturally seems to reflect political revolution but laid over this coursing water the meaning is intentionally muddied.

When Kelly began making the film, and shooting the residents of Boeung Kak, in 2009, they were intended to be the sole focus of his story. It soon widened to include the separate tale of the camera-wielding Buddhist monk Venerable Sovath who bears witness to the ills of the local people near his pagoda, who have been shot and imprisoned in order to seize their land. Over the course of six years of filming, they all became swept up in a writhing national movement against the land-grabbing of the authoritarian prime minister, Hun Sen.

Quite how that story plays out can be difficult to follow as the structure doesn’t make the surrounding narrative especially clear. Kelly eschews talking heads or expert testimony, and only rarely to characters flesh out the skeleton provided by occasional intertitles. When this style is employed for a single, short-term conflict, it can be incredibly powerful (just think of Sergei Loznitsa’s Maïdan) but Kelly’s film effectively drops the audience in situ at specific events within a much broader six-year framework without any context.

The immediate experience is exhilarating – especially in powerful moments like impromptu rallies or villagers banding together to protect Venerable Sovath from the religious authorities – but the overall one can feel a little muddled. This is particularly the case with infighting among the activists which marks a sad coda. While the nebulous nature of the movement might be the point, it lacks a little clarity.

Kelly is, however, adept at capturing striking imagery: from the aforementioned spout of sludge to plumes of smoke rising from a burning vehicle the visuals have clear intent. Free-market democracy was supposed to offer a new life to the people of Cambodia after the horrors of the Khmer Rouge – but some of the Boeung Kak activists liken Hun Sen to that prior regime. They are not killing with guns, but they destroy the poor by taking their land. That said, some of the most upsetting footage does include violence on behalf of the authorities.

Kelly’s camera is often in the thick of the action when protesters clash with police, or elderly women are assaulted by armoured officers. He also uses footage shot by Venerable Sovath which plants viewers into some distressing scenarios. The intimacy calls to mind the unforgettable sequences on the picket line in Barbara Kopple’s tremendous Harlan County, USA. While Kelly doesn’t demonstrate quite the same level of craft as Kopple, his work is a bristling piece of journalism that adopts her unapologetic partisanship.

Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson