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'A Cambodian Spring' immerses us in the chaotic reality of political activism

Other | Monday 7th May 2018 | David

Activism is messy but essential work in A Cambodian Spring, Christopher Kelly’s immersive, frequently devastating new documentary that chronicles the turbulent experiences of Cambodian land-rights protesters over a span of six years. The Irish filmmaker intimately captures the victories, setbacks and complications of a continuous fight against injustice while stressing the importance of documenting these struggles if any real progress is to be made.

The film’s escalating series of violent conflicts and legal battles with authorities – leading up to the tumult of the 2013 election – finds its roots in the city of Phnom Penh where Tep Vanny and Toul Srey Pov are among the working class citizens protesting evictions in the region of Boeung Kak. Elsewhere, ‘multimedia monk’ Luon Sovath does all he can to support local activists despite efforts from the nation’s monastic order to limit his involvement.

Subverting our romanticised notions of political activism, A Cambodian Spring throws you into the chaotic and often tedious reality of everyday people doing what they can to improve the current state of affairs. Though Kelly doesn’t always provide enough context for viewers to fully understand and appreciate the difficult situations that these protesters find themselves in, the poignant humanity of the film’s subjects keeps us invested.

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The life of a protester is shown to be one lived on a constant treadmill, where it sometimes takes all the movement’s energy to avoid going backwards. Change is frustratingly slow in the face of authorities who are always looking for ways to silence dissenting voices.

It is only through media coverage and the filming of events that the actions of these protesters can find international exposure – and this, Kelly’s film suggests, is where activism finds its true power. Sovath seems to understand this better than anyone as he instructs his associates on how to use their cameras and distributes DVDs to his community that show local examples of appalling injustices. Though the citizens of Phnom Penh can be imprisoned by their government and beaten back by riot police, hope remains so long as the eyes of the world and the nation are watching.

Kelly’s thought-provoking film is, in itself, a compelling example of this necessary documentation, serving as both a moving summary of six years of dedicated action from the Cambodian people and a rousing testimony to the nature and complexity of political activism the world over.

A Cambodian Spring hits UK cinemas 17th May. More info here.

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