Plans to screen a documentary in Phnom Penh this week about the final months of slain environmental activist Chut Wutty’s life have been called off at the behest of the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, according to the film’s director.
The ministry sent a letter on Monday to Nico Mesterharm, founder and director of Meta House, which planned to show “I am Chut Wutty” on Wednesday, explaining that the screening of the film could not go ahead because of a lack of proper permits.
“I would like to inform you that the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts has received information about screening a documentary film entitled ‘I am Chut Wutty’ that will be held [at] 8:00 p.m. on 20th April, 2016 at the German-Cambodian Cultural Center,” it says, using another name for Meta House.
“[T]he Ministry has noticed that the German-Cambodian Cultural Center has not yet received permission in accordance with existing provisions that require all kinds of films to receive authorization from the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts before screening publicly.”
Meta House, which hosted the film’s premier in Phnom Penh in December 2014, is closed on Mondays, and Mr. Mesterharm could not be reached for comment.
Chut Wutty was shot dead in April 2012 at the age of 46, having established himself as one of the country’s most prominent defenders of the forests. His killing occurred during an altercation with military police as he was investigating suspected illegal logging alongside Cambodia Daily reporters in Koh Kong province.
An official investigation, which found that military police officer In Ratana shot Chut Wutty before being accidentally shot dead by another officer, was widely criticized by rights groups for being short on evidence or explanations. The provincial court eventually dropped the case against the surviving officer.
The crew that shot “I am Chut Wutty” began filming before the activist was killed, and the film features segments in which he speaks of threats against him and the dangerous nature of his work.
Despite the bureaucratic reasoning given for the cancellation, director and producer Fran Lambrick said on Monday she believed the motivation was purely political.
“Meta House have decided not to go ahead with showing the film,” she said in an email. “There were no warnings that this might occur, but the government is increasingly repressive towards environmental defenders—these are exactly the people who should be lauded and honoured.”
Kazumi Arai, communication manager for the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center, which regularly screens films for the public, said submitting films for review by the ministry was common practice, and that its decision regarding “I am Chut Wutty” was not surprising.
“This is Cambodia. It has always been this way,” Ms. Arai said.
“It’s not like other countries—Western countries,” she added. “We try our best…it happens every day in institutions that work for culture.”
Chak Sopheap, director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, noted that a similar decision had been handed down to prevent Meta House from screening “Who Killed Chea Vichea?”—a film about the 2004 assassination of the man who was the country’s most successful union leader.
“Both of these films have attempted to do something which the government has refused to do itself, i.e. to find justice for these murdered human rights defenders and their families,” she said in an email.
“This ban provides yet another example of Cambodia’s pervasive culture of impunity, and the lengths that the government will go to preserve it.”
(Additional reporting by Kuch Naren)