Perhaps the most absorbing moment in Chris Kelly's film, A Cambodian Spring is the scene which affords the viewer a rare insight into the character of the Venerable Luon Sovath, the Buddhist monk and film activist, the character that exists behind his beatific smile and warm disposition.

The law does not allow the monk to side with the villagers in protests over forced evictions at Boeung Kak lake which begin to take place around 2009. The monk can, if he wishes, take off his robes and live with the villagers, but in that event he would have to forsake being a Buddhist monk. The secular forces cannot arrest him, only the religious police have the power to do so.

However, should he is be defrocked by his religious superiors for what is perceived as a serious breach of conduct, the civilian police force can arrest him. We see him mull over these disturbing possibilities, while the villagers stand firmly by him as their mentor. He insists that the protest was under way before he joined the villagers, that he is not the leader his accusers say he is.

Now he finds himself barred from attending court proceedings. Letting down his guard somewhat, the monk declares that he is in new territory. Backing off from confrontation almost seems to disorient him, he explains that he normally confronts his fears. If you run away from problems they only run after you, he says in his native Cambodian. He is uncertain too about how he will respond to future events which may test him further.

Tep Vanny, one of the leaders of the protest

It is a fascinating revelation, you could somehow imagine a radical Catholic priest in Central or South America enduring the same crisis of conscience, the resilience of religious devotion challenged, rendered vulnerable, however transient such a challenge may be felt in the mind of the believer.

A Cambodian Spring begins with a regretful Srey Pov leafing through photographs and remembering old times before the schism between her and the other principal protest leader, Tep Vanny. It ends with the same scene, a tearful Srey Prov contemplating the photographs and remembering when the two women were close friends. In the earlier years, 2010 and 2011 certainly, the two women were united against the police of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who is still in power today. He is believed to be a shoe-in in the coming July elections as there is effectively no opposition, the main party the Cambodian National Rescue Party, or CNRP, having been dissolved last year. Its most recent president, Kem Sokha, is in prison following his arrest in September 2017

The first democratic elections took place in Cambodia in 1993, the year Hun Sen came to power, ushering in a free-market economy and development, capitalist-style. Almost 20 years later and as seen in A Cambodian Spring the Boeung Kak lake is being flooded with sand. People are losing their houses in forced evictions and intimidation, including shootings and beatings.

Shukaku Inc are the company behind the private building development, diggers claw away indiscriminately at houses and galvanise shelters in the land-grab. Jobs and futures are lost, the residents file complaints to no avail, they begin to protest, the police are called. The venerable Luon Sovath falls foul of the authorities and is criticised by the Supreme Patriarch (Buddhist).

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Ratcheting up the tension, the film is told in chapters, beginning in 2009 and charting the course of the gathering wave of protest thereafter, the court sessions and imprisonments and brief victories. The World Bank is also player in the drama, 2009 is the year the World Bank’s Land Management programme is cancelled by Hun Sen. At another point, the World Bank freezes all aid to the country, unless the country gets its house in order. 

A number of rice farmers are arrested and imprisoned. They are released after two years in exchange for giving up land. Kep Chuktema, City Governor of Phonm Penh is another of the dramatis personae, a wily character who is believed to be a close adviser to Hun Sen. The Venerable Luon Sovath visits New York and addresses an event sponsored by Witness, an organisation which identifies critical situations and teaches safe and ethical filming techniques, along with advocacy strategies in areas of conflict around the world. 

"Virtue will prevail and wherever there is difficulty, God will help us," the Venerable Luon Sovath tells the villagers back home when things seem really bleak. Yet through it all his smile is genuine, unforced. One can readily see how his charisma would spur people on, despite his insistence that he is not a leader of the movement.

Standing up against the might of Hun Sen's police

Then 100,000 garment workers go on strike and the protestors are expected to be patient as the concerns of the garment workers who work in the lucrative export industry are addressed. The returned leader of the Opposition, Sam Rainsy promises them that their problems will be addressed tomorrow, but it is a figurative usage. Soon he is appointed leader of the minority opposition by Hun Sen, as though he is co-opting him into government. Sam Rainsy is the president of the Cambodia National Rescue Movement (CNRM), launched last January and he is banned from political activity in Cambodia. He currently lives in exile in Paris.

A Cambodian Spring had its world premiere at the Hot Docs festival in Toronto, Canada in May 2017 where it won the Special Jury Prize for International Feature Documentary. The film was written, produced and directed by Derry director Chris Kelly. 

"A Cambodian Spring is for me a deeply personal film, which took nine years to complete, " says Kelly in accompanying publicity. "It is an exploration of what motivates us, what gives our lives meaning, and what happens when our personal desires colour and shape our actions. It is an unapologetically subjective portrait of my time in Cambodia, of the people who shared their lives with me and of the shifting landscapes, both physical and emotional, that I found there."

This illuminating and absorbing documentary begins screenings tonight at various cities around the country and opens at selected cinemas nationwide on Friday May 4.

See RTÉ Entertainment's interview with Chris Kelly - text and video - and the film's Irish screening details here

A Cambodian Spring: written, edited, directed and produced by Chris Kelly