American filmmaker Bradley Cox’s compelling new documentary “The Plastic Killers” tackles a controversial and complicated topic, but the argument presented is simple: The two men serving 20-year sentences for the 2004 murder of Free Trade Union President Chea Vichea are innocent.
The 50-minute documentary spans from shortly before the assassination of Chea Vichea in January 2004 to April of this year when the Appeal Court upheld the guilty verdict against his suspected killers, Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun. Controversy already surrounds “The Plastic Killers” with the Ministry of Culture stating that the documentary is not to be distributed in Cambodia until Cox applies for a license and the ministry reviews its contents.
The film reveals little about the events that followed Chea Vichea’s death that newspapers and rights groups haven’t already reported. But presented for the first time in documentary form, the events surrounding the murder paint a disturbing picture.
The film opens on the high-profile union leader, just six months before he was gunned down in broad daylight in Phnom Penh. “I know they want to kill me,” Chea Vichea calmly tells the camera, before displaying a threatening SMS text on his phone: “A DOG I WILL KILL YOU.”
The film goes on to show Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun being dragged before the media shortly after their arrest, crying that they’ve been framed. “They are high ranking officials—they can do anything they want,” a distraught Born Samnang screams. “They can turn white to black.” But in the very next scene we see a resigned-looking Born Samnang on the following day confess to the murder.
Confessions aside, the film brings forward witness after witness claiming they saw Born Samnang in Prey Veng province celebrating Chinese New Year on the day of the assassination.
Sok Sam Oeun’s alibi is not as strong, but witnesses are heard—but not seen—in the film claiming that Sok Sam Oeun was sleeping in a hammock in a Phnom Penh house at the time of the murder.
“You know in Cambodia, you know a little bit, you can die,” one of the unidentified witnesses states to explain his reluctance to appear on camera. The film also depicts Phnom Penh’s then-deputy police chief Heng Pov and then-deputy minor crimes police chief Ly Rasy as failing to properly investigate the case.
In the years since the killing, Heng Pov and Ly Rasy have both taken a spectacular fall from grace and are now serving over 30 years a piece in jail. “One might be reluctant to take the word of men like these,” Cox says in a voice over.
One of the more surprising moments in the documentary is the account of eyewitness Var Sothy, who owned the newsstand where Chea Vichea was gunned down while reading a newspaper. Fearing for her life after witnessing the killing, she fled to Thailand and was later given asylum abroad. The courts disallowed her written testimony.
In “The Plastic Killers,” Var Sothy is shown holding up a photograph of Born Samnang and declaring: “I’d like to confirm that this is not a picture of the real killer.” Var Sothy adds that Heng Pov told her to remain silent in the wake of the killing.
Despite the unpolished look of the film, which Cox said he financed entirely on his own and edited largely in his living room, “The Plastic Killers” grabs your attention.
There are, however, a number of points on which it falls flat.
It provides very little background as to who Chea Vichea was, or why his death was significant given Cambodia’s recent bloody and violent history. And while the film makes a solid argument in favor of Born Samnang’s and Sok Sam Oeun’s innocence, it fails to ask or answer two important questions: If they are innocent, then who did kill Chea Vichea? And, more importantly, who benefited most from Chea Vichea’s death? Cox said he is working on a longer documentary about Chea Vichea and Cambodia, but the focus of this film was intentionally narrow, to simply show that Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun had been framed.
Intriguing as “The Plastic Killers” is, trying to get a copy on DVD will prove difficult because of the current ban on its distribution in Cambodia. It can, however, be viewed online at www.plastic-killers.blip.tv/ in English and Khmer.