A Cambodian Spring




A disturbing view of the realities in Cambodia's supposed democracy.

Cambodian Spring, A


Most films made about Cambodia have concentrated on the horrors of the Khmer Rouge when Pol Pot was in power and that was so even as recently as 2013 when The Missing Picture appeared. But now we have a documentary feature from Chris Kelly, which looks at life in that country from 2009 onwards. In theory this is a portrayal of what is now a democratic era, one which, with Hun Sen as its long-serving prime minister, has transformed the country. But, with a title doubtless intended to remind us of the Arab Spring, Kelly’s film, a striking example of reportage in a time marked by understandable protests, becomes an indictment of what we are invited to see as a fake democracy.


Filming from 2009 onwards, Kelly has chosen three figures whose experiences over the years he has made central here and, even if a couple of them end up at odds, all three emerge as notably sympathetic and engaging. Two of them are mothers living in Phnom Penn in the area close to Boeung Kak Lake. Both Toul Srey Pov and Tep Vanny became leading protestors when threatened with the loss of their homes for inadequate compensation after the government approved development by a company to which it had leased the land. Further north, in Siem Reap Province, we find a Buddhist monk, the venerable Luon Sovath, who supports local farmers molested by the authorities. Initially these two distinct protests are intercut to good effect but then, with Luon Sovath becoming involved with the prolonged fight for justice in Boeung Kak, that aspect becomes the main focus. In addition, the film reveals the extent to which religion has been taken over by the state so that monks are endangered if they concern themselves with social issues.


For all the injustice and violence seen here it is sometimes possible, if only on appeal, to get a helpful court ruling, so the situation may not be quite as one-sided as the film seems to suggest: even so, what we see provides ample evidence that right is not on Hun Sen’s side. In persuading us of that, Kelly gives us a film that is very much his, for he is named as director, writer, editor and chief photographer. Much of what he achieves is admirable including the editing for much of the time, but as the man in control he must be blamed for the film’s structural weaknesses. 


Since Kelly allows himself a running length of over two hours, shaping of the material becomes important. We do eventually come to realise that the division of the film into five untitled chapters is likely to mean that each chapter will deal with one year, but there is no opening statement to indicate how many years will be covered. Furthermore, Chapter 5 mainly concerned with 2013 suddenly sprouts an unannounced coda about 2014 and, worse still, that coda involves halfway through a fade to black which suggests incorrectly that the film has ended. Since this fifth chapter is also the most diverse (it touches on a fresh election with a rival candidate to Hun Sen taking part), it matters all the more that it pushes on so shapelessly. But, if this section weakens the film, A Cambodian Spring nevertheless deserves to be seen: much of it is well judged and all of it is important.




Featuring  Toul Srey Pov, Tep Vanny, Luon Sovath.


Dir Chris Kelly, Pro Chris Kelly, Screenplay Chris Kelly, Ph Chris Kelly, Ed Chris Kelly, Ryan Mullins and Pawel Stec, Music James Holden.


Little Ease Films/Dartmouth Films/Zanzibar Films/Eyesteelfilm-Dartmouth Films.
126 mins. UK/Ireland/Canada/Estonia. 2017. Rel: 18 May 2018. Cert. 15.