Friday 25 May 2018

Memories of overdevelopment: "A Cambodian Spring"

In the popular imagination, Cambodia has never seemed an especially happy place: site of those Khmer Rouge atrocities chronicled by local filmmaker Rithy Panh in such films as 2003's S21 and 2013's The Missing Picture, and by the visiting Joshua Oppenheimer in 2012's The Act of Killing. With the passing of Pol Pot in 1998, one might have hoped the Cambodian people were headed for greater security and prosperity, but Chris Kelly's exceptional new documentary A Cambodian Spring - providing an overview of the nation as it felt its way into the 21st century, shot over the best part of the last decade - finds those same people at the mercy of an altogether fraught process of rebuilding. Kelly's focus is on the predominantly female householders of Boeung Kak, a lakeside community in Phnom Penh that came under threat after Prime Minister Hun Sen's aggressively pro-business regime sold off the land to developers working under the auspices of the World Bank. As the diggers moved in, the women stepped up their opposition, finding a lone ally in Venerable Luon Sovath, a Buddhist monk who - in a concession to worldly things - armed himself with a smartphone early on in the impasse, and provided the raw handycammed footage that brings Kelly's film directly into the eye of a gathering storm.

For the most part, A Cambodian Spring is a masterclass in calm, committed observation. Kelly forsakes any of that theatrical tricksiness that some objected to in Oppenheimer's film, instead limiting his interventions to sober, white-on-black chapter headings that nudge the narrative and timeline along at regular intervals. What we're left to watch is the sight of a community being torn apart both physically and emotionally in the name of quote-unquote progress. As the placement of the title over a shot of the spume of water used to flood the land ahead of development suggests, this is an epic of ebbs and flows. For much of these densely packed two hours, the film contents to gather evidence of an uneasy stand-off: the vultures in hard hats beginning to circle the women's properties, the women wondering just how long it will be before the water comes up to their family's necks. 

Every now and again, however, the tension between the two factions erupts into outright violence: a scuffle during a visit from UN honcho Ban Ki-moon pre-empts the ruthless destruction of several lakeside properties, often before their erstwhile tenants' eyes, sometimes before these tenants have really had chance to retrieve their possessions. We're headed towards an electoral showdown between Sen and Sam Rainsy, the opposition leader returning to Cambodia after several years in exile, and a general strike that sees many of those who've been displaced by this regime flooding the streets in turn. Amid this tumult, Kelly reels in images that speak eloquently indeed to some wider imbalance of power: a fisherman struggling against a rising tide, a digger bearing an EU insignia on its flanks, shots of a hundred or more armed troops hustling to their jeeps as another protest breaks out.

Watching these determined women juggling childcare with their newfound responsibilities as pillars of the opposition, you can only wonder where the men of Boeung Kak have gone. My guess was that they were away working the ten-to-twelve hours a day this regime demands of them to support their families - an absence that ironically makes it all the easier for the corporations to move in on their homes - though of course it's men who show up at the protests with crowbars and machetes in the role of paid stooges, ready to bundle mothers, children and grandmothers into the back of police vans. There is, however, one complication in any gendered reading of the film: the pronounced, lasting and visibly painful split that develops between those householders willing to accept the Sen regime's scant concessions and those determined to fight on. What Kelly offers, and what makes A Cambodian Spring so much more universal than the regional, seasonal story its title promises, is a lesson in how one movement can tessellate with others - a vivid illustration of what the woke world dubs intersectionality - but also how those in positions of power can open up and exploit the faultlines running between groups and individuals.

The Venerable Sovath, whose very calling surely places him on a higher spiritual plain to such niggly earthbound struggles, comes to be dragged into the mire himself after Sen - operating in his guise of Lord Prime Minister and Supreme Military Commander, roughly half-a-dozen titles too many for any one man - appoints the conservative Tep Vong as Great Supreme Patriarch, the national religious leader. Vong uses his new platform to speak out against those monks who sully their hands with the concerns of ordinary people, especially those who would push back against his employers; soon, splits are appearing even among the ranks of the orange-robed - so much for harmony - and the increasingly isolated Sovath is being pursued through the streets of Phnom Penh by (a quite extraordinary concept, this) "the monk police". (As he's heard to lament while dodging his pursuers: "Religion belongs to the Government now.") Church and state may, in this, have become one totalitarian whole, but everywhere else one looks in Kelly's film, we see how the policies of progress are often indivisible from old-school divide-and-conquer. Wherever we are in the world, and whichever direction our cameras seem to be pointing in, isn't that always the capitalist way?

A Cambodian Spring is now playing in selected cinemas.

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