Editor’s note: The author of this article requested that the following be published anonymously out of concern for their safety reporting on these issues in Cambodia.
Chut Wutty was a leader. As the director of the Natural Resources Protection Group in Cambodia, he worked with and inspired hundreds of local residents to protect large swaths of jungle from deforestation. It was for that work that he was shot and killed by military police in 2012.
I Am Chut Wutty, a documentary by British filmmaker Fran Lambrick detailing Wutty’s work and tragic death, was set to be shown publicly at Phnom Penh’s Meta House on April 20 — until the authorities had their say. The Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts banned the screening via a letter, stating that “the film has not been subject to a content check and was made without permission for shooting from the ministry and competent authorities.”
Everyone working in Cambodia is expected to register their work, including foreign filmmakers. Furthermore, authorities state that all planned public screenings must be submitted to the Department of Cinema and Cultural Diffusion for clearance beforehand. Lambrick did not have permission to film I Am Chut Wutty nor did Meta House have permission to screen it.
Lambrick shot the film as part of her PhD at Oxford University on community forestry in the Prey Lang region. The work documents a community of activists spanning 330 villages that joined together to fight industrial logging; Wutty was the undeniable leader. Among other tactics, the community used direct action such as the burning of already cut timber in order to eliminate profits and force loggers to incur extra costs. The group believed that if it turned the timber over to the police, they would likely sell it themselves.
The environmental devastation facing Cambodia is stark. As the Cambodia Daily reports, “Forest loss in Cambodia between 2001 and 2014 accelerated at a faster rate than in any other country in the world.” Cambodia is ranked 23rd around the globe for total forest cover lost. Comparing that to much larger countries hints at the extent of the damage; Cambodia is only the rough size of Oklahoma.
The rapid deforestation is being enabled in large part by a phenomenon called Economic Land Concessions (ELCs): the government leases its land to companies, usually rubber plantations, in the hopes of spurring economic growth. The rate of deforestation strongly correlates to global rubber prices: the higher the price, the faster ELCs are created. The trees cut down to make way for the rubber are often sent to Vietnam to be sold as timber or to China, which has a huge appetite for the luxury woods often found in Cambodia.
ELCs account for at least 45% of the total loss of Cambodian forest cover. And the process is perfectly legal: the government declares a forest “degraded,” which then allows big businesses to do with the land what they will. Activist groups often dispute these classifications. Many ELCs are established on what are quantifiably the healthiest forests in the country, often abutting or even encroaching upon nationally protected ecosystems.
A hub in Phnom Penh, Meta House has a long history of screening socially important documentaries. It also has close ties to the the city’s creative community, as well as a relationship with the German government’s globally respected Goethe-Institut. This was, in other words, not just any screening, but one with special significance, and the boldness of the government’s decision to shut it down has stirred debate
“It’s always sad if a film screening is not permitted,” Nicolaus Mesterharm, founding director of Meta House, wrote to Hyperallergic over email. “However, in nine years of Meta House, that happened two times — including the recent ban of Chut Wutty. This is why, compared to the level of censorship in other (neighboring) countries, we can’t really complain.
“The film is just a window on to what happened,” he added. “What is important is to talk about what’s happening out in the forest. Prey Lang has suffered in the last four years since Chut Wutty’s death.”
But some argue that discussing the ban is not a sideshow, it’s an integral part of continuing Wutty’s work. Free speech is as important to activism as the right to assembly. As one activist from Mother Nature, a Cambodian environmental protection NGO, wrote over email, “I think that freedom of speech and public debate are very important for developing countries, because the government will not always see the mistakes themselves.” This is the promise of investigative journalism, independent filmmaking, and other forms of free speech. For Wutty’s work to grow, for his death to mean something, for history to not repeat itself, his story must be told.
Sadly, that story is not unique. Global Witness says that at least 13 environmental activists or lands-rights defenders have been killed since 2002 in Cambodia. Last year, officials detained Alex Gonzalez-Davidson and San Mala, co-founders of Mother Nature, and subsequently deported Gonzalez-Davidson. Mala and two others members of the group are still imprisoned for their work protesting illegal sand dredging and the construction of a hydroelectric dam in the Areng Valley.
Just this March, 25-year-old activist Phon Sopheak was attacked with an axe in Prey Lang and survived with minor leg wounds. Sopheak was lucky. Last year, Sieng Darong, a forest ranger, and Sab Yoh, a police officer, were shot and killed by illegal loggers. And like Wutty, Chea Vichea, a union organizer, was assassinated in 2004 for his work. Fighting big business can be very dangerous in Cambodia.
The banning of politically sensitive works is not unheard of in the country either, though it’s not as common as in neighboring Vietnam and Laos. A book covering the life and mysterious death of Piseth Pilika, a famous Khmer dancer and actress, was censored through the country, without any public court order or official statement; Pilika’s death implicates the highest levels of Khmer government. The Ministry of Culture and Fine Art’s Department of Film took two years to approve Khmer director Chhay Bora’s 3.50, a fictional film about human trafficking in Phnom Penh; one of the cuts it asked for was the removal of a line that says Cambodia is “full of sex trafficking.” More recently and absurdly, Hollywood action movie No Escape was banned for misuse of the Khmer script, as was 50 Shades of Grey, for being too sexual.
There might, however, be a positive side to the story of the Meta House Chut Wutty screening. In a classic example of the Streisand effect, private (i.e. not requiring a permit but also secret) showings of the film are popping up all over the country. The Guardian reports that in a three-day period after the ban, a Khmer version of the documentary garnered nearly 100,000 views.
NGO hub Solidarity House, located in Phnom Penh, hosted a screening that was attended by Lambrick and Wutty’s son, Cheuy Oddom Reaksmey. District authorities visited Solidarity House prior to the event, and police interrupted the film 30 minutes in, citing a lack of permission, which isn’t legally required for non-public screenings. After some debate, the police allowed the screening to continue, but one of the organizers is being summoned to a police station to discuss it.
Meanwhile, the fight in the forests continues. Lambrick has teamed up with Leng Ouch, who worked with Wutty, to form Not One More (N1M), a campaign network for the protection and support of environmental activists at risk. Lambrick told Hyperallergic over email:
No one should have to sacrifice themselves for the rest of us to live in a world that is beautiful and sustains life. We all need to be together. If we take action one by one, we risk being jailed, attacked, and even killed. But the battle to protect the environment is not an issue for you or me, it affects everyone, so we should all stand by each other. That is the idea behind N1M.
The group’s first operation will be to join forces with Mother Nature to campaign for the freeing of the latter’s three jailed activists, Sim Somnang, Try Sovikea, and San Mala. For their work protecting Cambodia’s environment, “these three activists are in jail on trumped-up charges,” Lambrick wrote. “They share a cell and most of the time have less than 0.5 square meters of space each.” N1M’s first petition is now online.
“To honor and respect the land is not a right; it is a gift,” said Kalyanee Mam, a Cambodian filmmaker and environmental activist, via email. “I Am Chut Wutty, a film which honors the life and work of a leader who inspires us to honor our natural and spiritual heritage, is also a gift that must be shared with the world. Just as no government can ban the right to honor and respect the land, no government can prevent us from gathering and expressing our love for this land through the screening of a film. Chut Wutty lit a candle in our hearts, which will continue to burn as long as we continue to express our love for the land.”
You can stream the movie here or host a screening, like some brave people are already doing in Cambodia. The battle is uphill but necessary. Earlier this year, Cambodia switched places with Myanmar, becoming the most corrupt country in Southeast Asia.