Landmine Pageant Director Hopeful Cambodians will See Govt Shunned Film

The man behind last year’s attempt to host Cambodia’s first beauty pageant for landmine victims has condemned the government’s promise to ban any screening of a new documentary about his project.

Undeterred, Morten Traavik said he remained hopeful about getting the film seen in Cambodia, “in one format or the other.”

“Miss Landmine,” a Canadian documentary about the Norwegian theater director’s yearlong effort to stage the pageant, will have its world premiere at the San Francisco Docfest on Oct 16.

Mr Traavik’s plan was to have one landmine victim from each province compete for cash prizes and a new prosthetic limb. By giving the women a chance to participate in an activity typically reserved for the able-bodied, his stated aim was to help restore the contestants’—and all landmine victims’—confidence and self-respect.

But Mr Traavik’s plans were label degrading and exploitative by the government and some NGOs. In early August 2009, days before a photo exhibit of the contestant was to premier in Phnom Penh, the Ministry of Social Affairs ordered the event shuttered. With the aid of some 2,300 online votes from 30 countries, the project nonetheless announced a winner in December.

“Miss Landmine,” commissioned by Canadian broadcaster CTV, chronicles the affair from start to finish.

According to Mr Traavik, the film also implicates the secretary-general of the Cambodian National Volleyball League (Disabled), Chris Minko, in getting the project thrown out of the country. Asked on camera if he played a part in the ministry’s decision, he reportedly replied, “Yes. I made a recommendation to the minister [Ith Samheng] the evening before Morten was asked to leave the country, and I said: ‘Get him out. People like that are not needed in this landscape.’”

Mr Minko said he merely shared his thoughts with the minister.

“I gave an opinion to the ministry—nothing more, nothing less—an opinion I stand by,” he said via e-mail Tuesday. “The minister makes his own decisions very capably.

“There are more dignified ways of showcasing the ability of Cambodian landmine survivors, such as through the many high[ly] successful and internationally recognized Cambodian programs of sport and disability,” he added.

Mr Minko ignored questions about the film itself.

According to the Ministry of Culture, a 2000 subdecree charges it with signing off on any film publicly screened in the country. On Tuesday, ministry adviser Kong Kantara said he could not comment on any possible ban on “Miss Landmine,” because the ministry had not seen it yet.

On Monday, however, Social Affairs Ministry spokesman Lim El Djurado said the ministry would have any attempt to screen the film here barred because “it affects the tradition and Cambodian women.” Prime Minister Hun Sen himself issued a standing ban on the Miss Cambodia contest in 2006 for as long as he led the country, calling the pageant a waste of the country’s resources.

Like Mr Minko, the founder and president of local rights group Licadho, Chhiv Kek Pung, said she thought the pageant in poor taste from the start. But poor taste was no grounds for censorship, she said yesterday.

“If this is the reason [the ministry] has given, I believe the government should not ban this project or a film about it since in my opinion the project…may be in poor taste but is not immoral or pornographic,” she said.

“I think the government should allow [the screening] since it doesn’t harm the people,” agreed Dos Sopheap, who won the competition—along with a $10,000 prosthetic leg and $1,000 in cash.

“I used to cry every day and hardly ever went out in public,” said Ms Sopheap, who lost her left leg to a landmine in 1996. “Now I have courage to be seen by people.”

Despite the government’s promise to ban the film, Mr Traavik remained optimistic-if cryptic-about getting the film into the country.

“The upside of today’s free flow of shared information is that even though the government would probably want to, they won’t be able to stop the movie from being seen in one form or the other by people inside Cambodia,” he said via e-mail. “I don’t want to be more specific than that at the moment.

“The mere idea that one should have to ask the government’s permission to show any film, book, theater play, painting or any other expression of the free flow of ideas or opinions only proves again what everybody knows but few inside Cambodia feel safe about saying out loud, namely that today’s Cambodia more and more is becoming a dictatorship again,” Mr Traavik said.

In a separate case, Phnom Penh City Hall barred the Cambodian Confederation of Unions earlier this year from screening a documentary about the still unsolved 2004 assassination of union leader Chea Vichea. At the time, the city cited the lack of a license from the Culture Ministry as its reason. The union’s attempt to screen the film near the site of Mr Vichea’s murder was broken up by police.

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