The proprietor of a Phnom Penh cultural center who was ordered by the government to cancel the screening of a documentary about slain environmental activist Chut Wutty said on Tuesday he was perplexed by the order because the film had already been shown at the center without incident.
Meta House owner and manager Nico Mesterharm received a letter on Monday from the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts informing him that screening “I Am Chut Wutty” would be against the law because he had not secured prior permission from the ministry’s cinema department.
Mr. Mesterharm, a German citizen, said on Tuesday that the letter surprised him because he had screened the film to an audience of activists and friends of Chut Wutty in December 2014.
“This is why I didn’t pay much attention to it; nobody there seemed to notice it [last time],” he said. “Suddenly, it has become a point of interest.”
He said that Meta House, a multipurpose cultural center that shows films on a near-daily basis, signed an agreement with the ministry in November last year promising to “talk to them” about upcoming films and deliver copies for review only when asked.
Mr. Mesterharm said Meta House would have followed necessary procedures in 2014, but that he could not recall how the cultural center had handled the first screening of “I Am Chut Wutty.”
Chut Wutty was shot dead by government security forces while investigating illegal logging in April 2012. According to the government’s account, the officer who shot the activist was himself shot dead at the scene—accidentally—by another officer. The courts dismissed the case against the surviving officer following an investigation riddled with inconsistencies and dubious claims.
The film’s director, Fran Lambrick, who believes the cancellation order was politically motivated, said on Tuesday that she had submitted it for review by the government after learning of the ministry’s letter on Monday and was still waiting for a decision.
Cinema department director Sin Chan Saya insisted on Tuesday that the screening was canceled only because his office had not been notified in advance. And on top of the agreement with Meta House, he added, a “legal requirement” that all films screened in public be reviewed by the government had been in place for years.
Mr. Chan Saya said films submitted for review were subject to various checks for a number of reasons, including the need to protect young viewers and preserve “religious harmony” and the “national interest.”
He said the department had yet to review “I Am Chut Wutty” and reserved judgment.
Multiple independent cinema operators reached on Tuesday declined to speak on the record about their experiences with the film review committee.