Review: ‘A Cambodian Spring’

Hot Docs 2017

3 mins read

A Cambodian Spring
(UK, 121 minutes)
Dir. Chris Kelly
Programme: International Spectrum (World Premiere)


A visceral, complex film that should come with a “For further study” list, A Cambodian Spring was made over six years by the Irish, London-based filmmaker, Chris Kelly. This unavoidably complicated examination of Cambodia in the new millennium involves the authoritarian Prime Minister Hun Sen, runaway development, police violence, corruption, land claims, overlapping anti-government movements and the return of an exiled politician, culminating in the 2013 mass protests of the “Cambodian spring” of the title.

Kelly’s original idea, eclipsed by later events, focused on local eviction protests, after several thousand families, living around Boeng Kak Lake in Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penn, were evicted for new development. The developers turned out to own a private company with close ties to the government. Kelly focused on three individuals, including two mothers of young children who led the Boeng Kak protest, Toul Srey Pov and Tep Vanny, close friends who later having a falling out. As well, the film follows monk and activist, Venerable Loun Sovath, who was censored and evicted by his Buddhist superiors when he became a leading figure in the protests against various land grabs and forced evictions. The so-called “multi-media” monk has chronicled police violence against protesters for international human rights agencies, and his footage provides some of the most disturbing scenes in the film.

More a sequence of moments lit by lightening than a comprehensive picture, Kelly’s film leave some big gaps, including the connections between the land protests and the mass hysteria that greets the return of opposition leader Sam Rainsy from voluntary exile for the 2013 national election. (Rainsy was banned from the country this past February.) Kelly’s decision to eschew talking-head analysis or provide much context is certainly problematic. But his emphasis on the private and public choices of the three protagonists makes this a relatable story and his approach impels viewers to do their own research and follow-up, itself a form of distant activism.

A Cambodian Spring can be seen:
-Wednesday, May 3 at Scotiabank Theatre at 6 p.m.
-Thursday, May 3 at Hart House Theatre at 12:30 p.m.
-Sunday, May 7 at Toronto Centre for the Arts at 6:15 p.m.



Liam Lacey is a freelance writer for and POV, Canada’s premiere magazine about documentaries and independent films.

Previously, he was a film critic for The Globe and Mail newspaper from 1995 to 2015. He has also contributed to such publications as Variety, Cinema Scope, Screen, and Entertainment Weekly, as well as broadcast outlets CBC and National Public Radio.

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