When I met the Venerable Sovath in August 2009, he was alone, studying philosophy and painting the story of Buddha on the walls of his quiet, rural pagoda in Siem Reap province, Cambodia. He told me that he became a monk as a child to escape the bloodshed of the civil war that was consuming his family. A few months before his brother and nephew were shot during a violent forced eviction, in which many of his family and community lost their land to a wealthy businessman. When he arrived at the hospital, he started to film, and afterwards he made a short documentary to share with others. This was the turning point that transformed Venerable Loun Sovath from an artist into a filmmaker activist.
Now dubbed the multi-media monk, because of his technical proficiency in filmmaking and editing, and because of his innumerable gadgets, Venerable Sovath is trying to combine the teachings of Buddha with his new role as a Human Rights Defender, creating documentaries that highlight human rights abuses across Cambodia. For him, the path to enlightenment and the path of a Human Rights Defender are inexorably linked, yet how successfully he can reconcile these two drives is at the heart of his own personal struggle.
He uses video as a tool for his advocacy, both bearing witness to history and sharing information. He uses social media such as Facebook and his blog to share his videos with an increasingly connected and online Cambodian population.
He is fulfilling the now neglected traditional role of the Buddhist monk in Cambodian society, providing moral and spiritual guidance, and acting as a counterpoint to the power and corruption of an authoritarian government and a corrupt religious Sangha.
Srey Pov is a Cambodian housing rights activist and mother of three. She owns a small house on a valuable piece of land in central Phnom Penh. She came from a life of poverty and worked hard to save money, buy her home and provide a better life for her children. During her time as an activist she emerges as one of the community leaders, she is outspoken, articulate and insightful and is instrumental in her community obtaining an admission of wrongdoing from the World Bank. When her best friend Tep Vanny is put forward by others as the community leader a division appears within the group. As Vanny is invited abroad to speak on behalf of their community, Srey Pov remains at home, in the shadow of Vanny’s growing fame. Eventually Srey Pov leaves the group entirely, however it is never clear if she was bought out by the government or if she was the victim of rumours spread by Vanny.
The tragic end to her story reveals a fragile and lonely figure, longing for the friendship and solidarity that gave purpose and meaning to her life during the years of protesting.
Dubbed a ‘professional protestor’ by the Cambodian government, Vanny is a young mother of three and the appointed leader of Cambodia’s most high-profile forced eviction. She emerged as a leader during the later part of the protests mostly because she was the only member of their group able to speak English. Her role was cemented by Hillary Clinton when she intervened in their arrest and subsequent conviction. Vanny’s trajectory is on the rise throughout the film, while Srey Pov eventually pales away into the background, Vanny finds herself centre stage during the political protests that engulf the country, speaking on stage to tens of thousands of protesting Cambodians during the protests of the Cambodian Spring.
However by the end of the film, it is Vanny who recognises that the division between the group is being fuelled by the government and developers in order to further break them up. It seems tragic and inevitable that both the land-rights protestors and the political movement that attempted the Cambodian Spring, would eventually consume itself, that personal greed would get in the way of the greater good, and that their solidarity would be eroded and destroyed by that very human emotion; envy.