Review – Powerful doc ‘A Cambodian Spring’ illustrates the complexity of grassroots protest

Poster for 2018 documentary A Cambodian Spring

Genre: Documentary
Certificate: 15
UK Release Date: 18th May 2018
Runtime: 126 minutes
Director: Chris Kelly
Writer: Chris Kelly
Starring: Venerable Luon Sovath, Tep Vanny, Toul Srey Pov
Synopsis: When a land rights dispute threatens the homes of a poverty-stricken community in Cambodia, the residents rise up over several years in a sustained campaign of protests to put pressure on the authorities.

 

 

The art of the political documentary is a difficult one. There’s a tough and crucial balance to be struck between a searing polemic and a blandly impartial depiction of events. Those waters become muddied even further when the story is as complicated as the one being approached in A Cambodian Spring. Shot over six years by Irish filmmaker Chris Kelly, the movie depicts the murky dispute over land rights that fed into wider protests against the government in Cambodia. It’s a film that demands wider reading to fully understand and appreciate its power – and that’s no bad thing.

Kelly tells his story through the lens of three main characters. Tep Vanny and Toul Srey Pov are residents of the Boeung Kak area, who become activists when their land is threatened by aggressive developers after forced eviction by the government. Vanny soon becomes a figurehead for the anti-government movement and achieves a degree of fame, which leads to a division forming within the group. Meanwhile, Buddhist monk Venerable Luon Sovath becomes involved in the protests, despite religious leaders warning him away from the dispute.

Things start rather slowly in A Cambodian Spring, which takes time in depicting what initially seems like a significant, but ultimately rather pedestrian dispute over land. It’s heart-breaking for the people affected, but there’s none of the sense of scale promised by a title that evokes many of the most pivotal political uprisings of the last decade. However, this patience pays off as the movie moves forwards in time, showcasing the importance of these protests in a wider call for political change across the country, which is still under the shadow created by Pol Pot’s genocidal regime.

There’s a consistent and powerful feel that is familiar to anyone, regardless of nationality, of those in poverty fighting to find their place in a society that ostracises them. Early on, a character says that the powers that be “don’t want people like us living in their beautiful city” and, later, in the movie’s most emotionally potent sequence, the child of a falsely imprisoned protester becomes an activist and calls for the government to “release my mum” during a demonstration outside the courtroom where her parent’s case is being heard. Kelly never loses sight of the fact that these characters are human beings rather than simply emblems of a movement, especially when the push and pull of protest forces divisions and acrimony.

More of that humanity can be found in the Venerable Sovath, who doggedly pursues what he believes, even as it damages his position within the faith he treasures and puts him at odds with his peers. His refusal to turn his camera away is a heartening reminder that, once Kelly’s camera is packed and A Cambodian Spring makes its way through cinemas, this story will continue and it will be documented. In a complicated and ongoing tale, that’s a crucial message to depict.

 

Pop or Poop?

Rating: Pop!

A Cambodian Spring is a really potent and complex look at an issue that could very easily have been handled in a simplistic, polemical way by a filmmaker lacking the appropriate lightness of touch and appreciation of the difficult issues at play in this highly political story.

Chris Kelly gets his movie going rather slowly, but the whole thing has a heart-wrenching power as it moves into its final parts and it ultimately serves as an elegant, angry microcosm for the battle between citizen and government all over the world.

 

A Cambodian Spring will premiere at Curzon Soho on May 17 and is released in cinemas from May 18.

Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.

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