New Documentary Explores the Societal Costs of Development

The documentary “Even A Bird Needs a Nest,” which premiered Thursday night at Meta House in Phnom Penh, starts off strong: an interview of Prime Minister Hun Sen speaking about the country’s progress and development.

“The period of Hun Sen is a period of searching for peace and unification in the national union in order to build economic and social rebuilding,” Mr. Hun Sen says of himself and his achievements.

Juxtaposed with Mr. Hun Sen’s words, the filmmakers include footage of excavators destroying houses and people throwing rocks at police, protesters and land rights activist being beaten with police batons.

They are images that a peaceful democracy would not be proud of, and certainly not what Mr. Hun Sen was referring to when he described his contemporary vision of the country.

Running for 70-minutes, the documentary, by French co-directors Christine Chansou and Vin­cent Trintignant-Corneau, follows Boeng Kak anti-eviction activist Tep Vanny and explores the significance of land ownership in Cam­bodia, and how far people will go to defend their property rights.

“I thought living in the Boeng Kak neighborhood was the good life for us…. I thought we had a good future,” Ms. Vanny says of life before a property development company, linked to a senior official in Mr. Hun Sen’s ruling party, emptied her neighborhood and took their land.

“Under the regime of His Excellency Hun Sen, the development destroys my hopes and crushes my dreams,” Ms. Vanny says.

Other land disputes are briefly explained, such as in Kompong Speu province’s Sre Ambel district, where residents fought against military police forces to protect their land, using sticks and rocks against assault rifle gunfire.

Also featured in the film is opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who was interviewed when he was in self-imposed exile in Paris, and then-Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Mu Sochua as well as former Phnom Penh governor Kep Chuktema, who says that development can not be stopped, and conflict is par for the course.

“One can not avoid conflict with the people,” Mr. Chuktema says in the documentary.

“In my opinion, developments always cause difficulties, particularly in regard with land titles and people’s homes,” the former governor, who signed off on the Boeng Kak evictions, says.

“We try to solve them peacefully…development must benefit the people,” he adds, without a hint of irony.

As one watches, it is apparent that “Even a Bird Needs a Nest” will not likely have a happy ending.

After several years of fighting their eviction, despair clearly spreads, and the footage increasingly shows Ms. Vanny protesting and, in anger and futility, bursting into tears.

“I can’t live this way any longer, just kill us,” she screams while demonstrating against Phnom Penh authorities during one of many confrontations.

And, as if things could not get worse, at the end of the documentary, Ms. Vanny’s fellow Boeng Kak anti-eviction activist, Yorm Bopha, is imprisoned on grounds that many say are political and merely intended to intimidate dissenters.

But, their fight goes on. And rather than retreat, Ms. Vanny and her activist colleagues increase their protests, which are taken from the Boeng Kak lake area to foreign embassies, Phnom Penh City Hall and the Municipal Court.

The documentary ends, but the message “Free Yorm Bopha” continues to be shouted in protests on Phnom Penh’s streets.

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