Thursday, May 04, 2017

Hot Docs ’17: A Cambodian Spring

It is an awkward fact Cambodian Prime Minister (for life) Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party was also the party of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. It just changed its name (formerly the Kampuchean People’s Revolutionary Party) and supposedly renounced Communism (and genocide). However, you will question how reformed the party truly is when a group of neighborhood activists fight to protect their homes from deliberate flooding and appropriation in Chris Kelly’s A Cambodian Spring (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Hot Docs in Toronto.

Shot over the course of six years, Kelly marks the passage of time by documenting the devastation of Boeung Kak Lake. What was once an oasis within the city of Phnom Penh becomes a dusty wasteland as a World Bank-funded development project steadily fills it with sand. In the process, the houses of the surrounding neighborhoods are flooded out. Those homes that still stand have a date with the wrecking ball swing by the Shukaku Company, which naturally enjoys close ties to the Hun Sen administration/regime.

However, displaced families have little choice but to hang on in the water-logged homes, because the pittance compensation offered by the government will essentially leave them homeless. From within their ranks, working class mothers Tep Vanny and Toul Srey Pov emerge as activist leaders in the struggle for fair compensation and clear titled property rights. They will find one brave, mediagenic ally in Buddhist monk Venerable Luon Sovath, but since the Cambodian government appoints the Supreme Patriarch of the nation’s monastic system, much like China has claimed it has the right to do in Tibet, Venerable Sovath is at constant risk of being defrocked for standing with the beleaguered Boeung Kak residents.

Spring has no narration, because it doesn’t need any. Viewers can see with absolute crystal clarity what is happening and understand the full crushing implications of each development. This is truly an epic of widespread corruption and personal betrayal. It runs just over two hours, which is usually a tad long by doc standards, but it will leave you utterly staggered.

Sovath is indeed a profile in courage and both Vanny and Pov show plenty of guts during the first and second acts. In fact, both will see the inside of Cambodia’s prisons on trumped up charges. However, their falling, for acutely human reasons, is arguably the greatest tragedy Kelly documents.

Perhaps what is most galling about the Boeung Kak neighborhood’s plight is that as a World Bank voting member, we helped fund their woes. Even though bank officials were fully informed of the Boeung Kak horror show unfolding in their name, they continue to steer development funds to the Hun Sen regime. Frankly, Spring will put audiences in a mood to gather up pitchforks and march on 1818 H Street or 1 Dag Hammarskjold Plaza.

Throughout Spring, Kelly captures scenes so telling, they will turn your stomach to ice-water. In fact, this documentary is important beyond the malicious corruption it exposes. After watching Spring, viewers will better understand how and why oppressive regimes can so thoroughly grind down democratic reformist movements. It is also worth noting that the crux of the Boeung Kak residents’ woes are their lack of enforceable property rights, which are the cornerstone of the capitalist system. Eye-opening, emotionally draining, and altogether revelatory, A Cambodian Spring is easily one of the best documentaries of the year. Very highly recommended, it screens again this afternoon (5/4) and Sunday evening (5/7), as part of this year’s Hot Docs.