Sheffield 2016 (under original title, THE CAUSE OF PROGRESS) / Hot Docs 2017 (final cut)
One World, Human Rights Watch, Brooklyn, Galway, Docs MX, Antenna, Busan
A profile of activists opposing corruption under the guise of development in Cambodia.
Shot over the course of six years, Kelly’s film charts the struggles of the disenfranchised residents of Phnom Penh’s Boeung Kak lake region to combat a blatant land grab by the government in the name of development. Among those finding themselves spurred into action to defend their homes and families are young mothers Toul Srey Pov and Tep Vanny, who become committed activists seeking to put pressure on the local government and on outsider funders, such as the World Bank. Though they emerge as leaders, fractures begin to form as the latter takes on an increasingly public and international role, while the former eventually puts an end to her activism. Though Srey Pov cites a desire to focus on her family, Vanny spreads rumors that she instead was bribed by the government before recognizing that sowing internal strife is assuredly in their opponents best interest. Working alongside these citizen activists is the Venerable Luon Sovath, a Buddhist monk who feels called to support the people under his care, even when this runs afoul of direct orders from his religious superiors. Proficient with camera phones, he documents the abuses perpetrated by the government, not only on the people of Boeung Kak, but on himself – through the course of the film, he is constantly harassed by police and fellow monks, threatened with arrest and even with being defrocked. Kelly’s project is a long and dense one, expanding beyond the local land grab issue to larger matters of more widespread corruption, but this is not always properly contextualized, such as the story behind political opposition leader Sam Rainsy and his exile and later return for election. Though stronger when focused on his three protagonists, the film remains a compelling look at the power and determination of individuals to stand up against injustice.