Hot Docs Review: A Cambodian Spring [Chris Kelly, 2017]

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A Cambodian Spring is a sobering look at a protest movement beyond Western society’s usual attention. The film follows three Cambodian activists as they fight for land rights in the Boeung Kak area where the poor are forced off their own land in the name of economic development. The characters are smartly chosen to show the struggle for social justice. Two of the activists are young mothers who are actually living in the area and are forced to take a stand – lest they are left with nothing. Then there is a Buddhist monk who rebels against the supposed apolitical nature of the Cambodian religious organization to aid in the cause. The film covers this trio over a six-year span and provides a glimpse into a protest movement that is vastly different and more deadly from that of many developed nations.

This documentary benefited greatly from a filming period that lasted 6 years. It is fascinating to see the protagonists develop throughout the film amid the struggles and setbacks. Toul Srey Pov, one of the mothers, rose from a timid individual to a prominent face of the protests and then to a rather sad soul. The other mother, Tep Vanny, remained true to the cause and gained international notoriety, yet laments the loss of her being a mother to her children. Then there is a poignant scene where the Buddhist monk breaks down in a van as he realizes the serious danger he is in – far removed from the idealistic enthusiasm he felt at the start. A Cambodian Spring intelligently uses these narratives to provide an honest look at the personal involvement of a chaotic and violent protest.

Perhaps the main strength of this documentary is its sense of reservation. Other filmmakers, such as Michael Moore, would have been tempted to explicitly tug the audience towards the side of the protesters but this film avoids such over-preaching. There is no mood setting music, no commentaries, or any of the usual devices. Instead, it allows the characters’ actions and the resulting consequences to speak for themselves. Just to be clear, there are the usual “evil doers” – corrupt government, shady corporation, mindless thugs, and inept UN organization. Any decent human being will sympathize with the poor wretched souls fighting to keep what little they have. The film restrained itself from sensationalizing the struggles and the triumphs of the protests to provide a more nuanced storytelling. There are some unsettling (mostly bloody) scenes but they never reach such gratuitous levels as to wholly turn away the audience or overpower the film’s essence. This subdued nature truly enhances the seriousness of the film.

It is impossible to encapsulate a struggle as complex as the one shown in a 120 minute film. Decisions are made to keep the audience engaged and satisfy budgetary constraints. The omission of character updates between various chapters of the film gives a jarring discontinuity to the storyline at times. The ending chapter is particularly notable as the two mothers go through a profound change in the protest movement and their relationship to each other. Yet, little is devoted as to how they arrived to that point and a potential moment is missed.

In retrospect, A Cambodian Spring presents a contrast to the many protests that are being sprung up in modern western society. It rarely idealizes the protest as a struggle for morality or nobleness – it is simply fighting because there is little left. There is a real personal cost that happens for those involved. It is a film recommended for those who romanticize the notion of protests without being truly aware of the privileged circumstance they are given in developed nations.

5/5 Raised fists for Pepsi marketing executives.

4/5 Raised fists for everyone else.

Screenings:
Thu, May 4, 12:30 PM @ Hart House Theatre
Sun, May 7, 6:15 PM @ Toronto Centre for the Arts

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