When asked how long he's been working on The Cause of Progress, a documentary looking at the chaos, corruption and violence in contemporary Cambodia, Derry-born filmmaker Chris Kelly admits he's lost track, but certainly the best part of five years.
In this time, Kelly spent over three years living filming in the country that became a second home. With filming now complete, the former Queen's University student recalls how the mammoth project was conceived, discusses the ongoing struggle for funds to finish it off, and the inspring bravery of those he met on his travels.
How did you first get turned on to what was happening in Cambodia?
I had travelled throughout South East Asia and China in 2006, and there was something really compelling about Cambodia. Back then some of the side streets were still red dirt roads. It was a very raw place. So when I got back to Ireland I decided that I would try to make a documentary about Poipet, the border town.
I wanted to paint a portrait of that place, of all the things I'd seen there – the casinos, the poverty, the horrible contrast between the wealthy and the poor, the corruption and so on. I wrote a proposal and was very fortunate to get a good producer on board, and we started pitching the idea at festivals.
A large part of the film appears to centre around land-grabbing, and the cost on ordinary people displaced by the needs of developers and government. What was it about this part of Cambodia that compelled you to document it?
Land-grabbing was always part of the story, but it was not the initial idea, and I never thought it was a story that had to be told, as such. However, as we went forward it became apparent that it was a compelling subject and something with global relevance. What is happening in Cambodia is happening all over the developing world. So it's an opportunity to say something about the nature of global development.
How did the film finally get off the ground, and when did you start filming?
We pitched it at Sheffield Doc/Fest, and got our executive producer on board. And then, quickly after that, we got funding from the Irish Film Board and Northern Ireland Screen to begin filming. The focus of the narrative had changed, but for me the idea was still the same. I wanted to a paint a portrait of modern Cambodia. We started filming in July 2009, and wrapped in October 2012. I was based in Cambodia the entire time.
What were your impressions of Cambodia when you arrived?
It is a contradictory and ambiguous country. On an almost daily basis you can be infuriated by something or totally overwhelmed by the generosity of strangers. Usually nothing runs on time. There is a lot of petty corruption to deal with, but it also seems to work somehow.
People say it's dangerous, but I was filming in the most impoverished inner city slums of Phnom Penh, often late at night, and often alone, and I never once had any trouble. I think when people knew why I was there, they accepted me, or at least tolerated me.
What are the major challenges to taking on a project this ambitious? I presume the language barrier was tough?
Of course the language barrier is difficult, but we had the pleasure of working with some really amazing translators. I cannot overstate just how valuable a good translator is for such a film. They are the conduit through which you experience the world of your characters. What they tell you informs how you shape your ideas and how you progress through the narrative of the film.
The Cause of Progress follows three Cambodians in particular: Prak Sopheap, The Venerable Loun Sovath and Toul Srey Pov. What was it about their lives that attracted you to them?
They're all incredible people and leaders. I was drawn to Sovath, for instance, when I first saw him at a press conference for Amnesty International because he was filming everything on a little camera phone. Also he's a monk, so his story of religion and activism was worth exploring. He represents members of a community falsely imprisoned over a land dispute.
Meanwhile Srey Pov is a community leader for the people of Boeung Kak lake, and has a profound grasp of her situation. It's a fascinating thing to film someone who so deeply understands the nature of these complex and contradictory relationships.
However it was Sopheap who probably summed up the problems we focus on in the film, because of her courage in participating. She was the first person we filmed. We explained in detail the difficulties she would face by having us around, that we would attract unwanted attention, get her into trouble and would not be able to provide anything for her while we filmed.
She understood completely and was willing to take the risk as she felt what she was doing could potentially help hundreds of thousands of other Cambodian's facing the same problems as her. That kind of bravery is inspiring.
Why is it important that people see the film, and what lessons do you hope can be learned from it?
I'm not really an activist filmmaker. I'm interested in the cinema, and making films, much more than getting behind a particular cause. In fact I think it can be extremely dangerous for foreigners to become heavily involved in politics in another country. When foreign observers step over the line and start participating in protests, that is a dangerous scenario that they can walk away from, but those from that country cannot.
Since childhood I've always been more an observer than a participant, so documentaries about people have always fascinated me – films like Children Underground or any of Werner Herzog's best portraits, or the amazing My Country, My Country and The Oath by Laura Poitras.
A film like My Country, My Country is a beautiful example of what documentaries can do. They tell personal stories and open up into the much larger areas of the participants' lives. Being able to paint a portrait of modern Cambodia, through the lives of three participants, is what I wanted to do. By focusing on people, I can make a film that has a kind of dual narrative.
The audience sees and connects with the participants, but can also see ideas about development, forced evictions, the role of western institutions in the developing world and the corruption of the Cambodian government. I'm not trying to explain anything to the audience, or tell anyone what to think, and I don't believe the film will bring measurable change. But I do think documentaries can create conversations and be illuminating.
What stage is the film at now?
Shooting is finished, but we have all of post-production – editing, sound editing, design, mixing – yet to go.
You're currently fundraising through the Indiegogo crowd-source funding website, and have been for some time in order to ensure that the film gets finished. Has it been a frustrating process?
Fundraising is complicated, time consuming and highly competitive. Most funds have different requirements and mission statements, and you must demonstrate that your film addresses these. It's a full-time job. We have received very kind support from NI Screen and the Irish Film Board, but we still need to raise quite a bit in order to finish the film to the high standards we want. We've also had great help from many people along the way, such as the invaluable translators and Nicolas Axelrod, an Australian born photographer, who has been with us from the start.
When the film is finished, what would be your hope for getting it released?
We hope to premiere at a big film festival in early 2014. If the film is successful, we would look for an extended festival run, possibly with a limited theatrical release followed by television broadcast and a DVD release. We also want to show the film to governments, donors, policy makers who operate in Cambodia and, most important of all, we want our film to be seen by as many Cambodians as possible.
For more information or details on how to donate to visit The Cause of Progress Indiegogo website. The campaign for funding ends on Tuesday, January 29.