A Cambodian Spring


A Cambodian Spring (UK / Cambodia / 15A / 126 mins)

In short: Insightful

 Directed by Christopher Kelly. Starring Venerable Luon Savath, Toul Srey Pov, Tep Vanny.


The Plot: In this observational documentary set over a number of years in Cambodia, we follow three activists – concerned mother Toul Srey Pov, firebrand Tep Vanny and Buddhist monk Venerable Luon Savath – as they make their voices known to their corrupt Government. Politicians have been doing dodgy deals under the table with developers to clear land – and all homes with it – without consulting locals. With communities being destroyed at the whip of a pen, these land-rights activists take to the streets…


The Verdict: In 1993, Cambodia set aside the dark days of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge – memorably depicted in the Oscar-winning The Killing Fields. With the help of the United Nations, the country made a tentative move towards embracing democracy. Judging by the immediacy of Irish director Chris Kelly’s new documentary A Cambodian Spring, the Asian country of over 15 million people still has some way to go towards a full and inclusive democracy for all.

Six years in the making, the film became a passion project for Kelly. Having spent some time there initially as a tourist, he became interested in how ordinary people were being forcibly removed from their homes and offered a pittance to find a new home by the Government. The story begins in capital Phnom Penh, where local activists Toul Srey Pov and Tep Venny find their homes being threatened to make way for big business. They are respected women in their community who are speaking out at the injustice that is happening in plain sight.

Then Kelly offers a spiritual perspective from the Venerable Savath, a Buddhist monk who believes that the problems of the people are his concern. This is going against his own peers, who believe that monks should not be involved in political concerns. He is a social media-savvy monk, who understands the power and truth of a smartphone camera, in documenting street-level resistance. The striking, sometimes chaotic footage by Kelly, the Venerable Savath and archive footage from journalists forms an observational look into Cambodia’s fight for true democracy. It’s a narrative structure which serves the film well, without the need for voiceover or detailed historical context.

That said though, the film is a little one-sided in its approach. Archive footage of politicians are interspersed here and there, but don’t get a proper platform to express their own views. Given the core problems with the democratic process here (court trials closed to the public, allegedly rigged elections), a bit more political analysis wouldn’t have gone amiss. However, the film has many merits in its favour. The three activists, particularly the under-stated but passionate Venerable Savath, are commanding figures. They bring their stories and those of their communities to life with an immediacy that troubles the mind at the same time as giving hope for the future. A Cambodian Spring is an insightful and powerful documentary that demands to be seen.

Rating: 3.5 / 5 

Review by Gareth O’Connor