Lizzy Tomei is a master’s student at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. She is currently interning with our Forced Evictions campaign. Read her previous post about the film “Dear Mandela” on this blog here.
A major part of what brought me to WITNESS was my background as a newspaper reporter in Cambodia covering the issue of forced evictions. In the time I lived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital—2005 to early 2008—land disputes were becoming a growing source of tension and unrest. Urban evictions in Boeung Kak, Borei Keila, Sambok Chap, Group 78 and Dey Krahom were all familiar to me, as were cases of rural land grabbing in the countryside. When I learned about the Forced Evictions campaign at WITNESS this year, I was encouraged to discover that the organization thoroughly understands the severity and global nature of these issues, in Cambodia and elsewhere.
And when I found out Irish filmmaker Chris Kelly has committed the past two years to filming a feature-length documentary about land disputes and evictions in Cambodia, I was eager to hear more. (WITNESS staff members Ryan Schlief and Ryan Kautz first met Kelly in 2009 when they traveled to Cambodia for trainings with LICADHO.) On a Skype call last month (watch it below), Kelly told me that when he first arrived in Cambodia, he had planned to spend a few months mapping out his ideas for a new documentary, finding characters and learning the background to some of Cambodia’s most pressing contemporary issues. But he quickly realized that he couldn’t do justice to the stories of forced evictions he encountered without immersing himself in them. I knew what he meant.
“We’d initially planned just to film for two or three months,” he said. “But as soon as I got here I realized that that wasn’t really the way to do it. There was no real way to [capture the stories of forced evictions] other than to stay in Cambodia.”
Two years later, Kelly is still living in Phnom Penh following the lives of three individuals and their communities as they struggle against forced evictions. All are currently under threat or have been forced off their land by commercial and development ventures endorsed by the Cambodian government, a sobering phenomenon captured in the title of the film, “The Cause of Progress.” The three communities Kelly features in the film are well-known to WITNESS through its work with partner LICADHO, one of Cambodia’s largest local rights groups, and their campaign to end forced evictions in Cambodia.
The stories Kelly has been capturing are emblematic of the troubling transitions that Cambodia, a fledgling democracy still in many ways severely hindered by the genocide and civil war it survived in the 1970s, is making on its path to development. Land disputes and forced evictions are chief sources of contemporary civil unrest. These issues are closely tied to widespread corruption in the political structure and a weak judiciary, forces that conspire to rob hundreds of thousands of Cambodians of their basic rights. “The Cause of Progress” was recently selected by one of the world’s largest independent film organizations as an up-and-coming production to watch. Get a preview here:
Kelly’s main characters include two courageous women fighting separate urban evictions in Phnom Penh on behalf of their communities in Borei Keila and Boeung Kak. (The World Bank announced last week that it will cease to provide new funding to the Cambodian government until compensation and resettlement agreements are reached with Boeung Kak lake residents threatened with eviction. The announcement follows recent revelations by the Bank’s independent inspection panel that its Land Management Administration Project in Cambodia was seriously flawed and contributed to forced evictions.)
Another character is the Venerable Loun Sovath, a human rights defender whom WITNESS has worked with in Cambodia and honored in New York at last year’s Focus For Change Benefit Dinner & Concert. Himself a filmmaker, the Venerable has been documenting his hometown community’s fight against land grabbing while enduring threats from some members of the Phnom Penh religious establishment and the politically powerful. Read more about the Venerable’s ongoing struggle in this recent post.
“What initially attracted my attention to the [Venerable] was that he was making videos,” Kelly said. “It’s a great opportunity as a filmmaker…. Through his story I can actually try and say a lot about…video as a tool for change.”
Kelly has been able to document the persecution by religious and government authorities that the Venerable endures. But he has also been able to capture incremental steps forward, including the important role he says the Venerable’s video advocacy played in the recent release of villagers unlawfully detained for protesting the seizure of their land.
I spoke with Kelly about the subjects of his film and the factors in Cambodia generating ill-designed development projects that benefit few. Watch the interview here: