A Cambodian Spring shows us the activism of Cambodian villagers in their struggle for land-rights from 2009 to 2015 after the government gave their lands to a private company to modernize Cambodia.
The documentary follows more precisely three people: a Buddhist monk (Venerable Luon Sovath) involved in the protests despite his faith prohibiting any political involvement, and two mothers at the forefront of the protest, Toul Srey Pov and Tep Vanny, who want to protect their respective family and the community they share.
The movie mixes footage shot by Chris Kelly, the director, and footage shot by Luon Sovath, but apart from a few images showing events where Chris Kelly wasn’t present, Luon Sovath’s footage doesn’t seem to provide much more than what the director shot.
It serves a different purpose however: to highlight the power of images and the dedication of the monk to film as much as he can and use these videos efficiently to awake consciousness and pile proofs of what is happening in his country.
In that sense, although the documentary is clearly on the side of the villagers and aims at denouncing the human rights breaches they encounter, the focus is actually more on the three persons mentioned above and their personal struggle within the bigger problem.
I especially found the moments that gave us an insight into Buddhism and the monks’ status in Cambodia really interesting and a great addition to provide a bigger picture on Cambodia’s society and Luon Sovath’s personal life, with the monk going against the rules of his faith and facing the consequences this has.
Apart from small insights into the Buddhist monks’ lives and some excursions to the United States where the activists ask for international aid, the bigger picture is often lost, though, because the documentary isn’t always clear regarding the political context of the situation (for example, when a political figure returns from his exile, there’s no clear explanation of who he is, what he stands for or represents apart from being the current Prime Minister’s rival).
While this may not be the main focus of the documentary, it would have provided much needed information to build a clearer and wider portrait of the subject matter.
Some of the images shot by Chris Kelly are very beautiful and are sure to stay in people’s mind, but A Cambodian Spring is overall conventionally shot and edited.
The music by James Holden is a bit unequal: it is sometimes annoying (especially during the beginning of the documentary) and always very generic, but still manages to enhance a few particularly emotional scenes.
In terms of pacing, A Cambodian Spring feels long, its two-hour run time hindered by a repetitiveness that echoes the struggle it portrays, full of never-ending protests and trials; unfortunately, this makes the movie fail at fully grabbing my attention.
But while it may not be the most entertaining documentary, it is still one that sheds light on an important issue and shares some truly beautiful, heartbreaking and humane moments that were caught on camera, just like the lives of the three people in the midst of all of this.