Director: Polen Ly (Cambodia). Year of Release: 2022
An unnamed young man and his sister Neang are preparing to leave their village in Northern Cambodian for the big city of Phnom Penh. They go through the normal domestic routine of boat painting, weighing chickens on old-school scales, and eating Pot Noodles (no, really). She wants to visit the graves of their parents before they go as she’s not sure that the ceremony to take their souls from the old village was successful.
The brother does not want to go, so Neang leaves on her own. The old village consists largely of water as it has been flooded after the building of a new dam. Neang is only able to reach it by boat, and the grave is fully underwater. After paying her respects, she goes further on into the remains of the old village. She agilely climbs a tree, stops halfway and climbs down. Then she climbs to the top, eats the fruit that she finds there and stares wistfully into the distance.
That’s pretty much it. This is a short film playing at the Berlinale and shorts have a different rhythm. As with many similar films, it helps to have a little background information. The film was made secretly on the site of an actual displaced village. In an early scene, a dam lurks in the background, but there is no close up. At a Q&A afterwards, director Polen Ly hinted that this was a little bit of self-censorship anticipating intervention by the authorities.
The Cambodian government has promised that the hydro-electric dam would help the people, but energy prices are still rising. Meanwhile the indigenous villagers do not even have an Internet connection, which means that the people who suffer most from the flooding caused by the dam have no access to any of the benefits. On top of this, many are no longer able to fish for a living and have been forced to leave the area where they grew up.
The film in part shows the different possible reactions to this reality. The brother is hopeful that the future is out there, and sees the move to the capital as an opportunity. The sister is more worried about what was lost in the past. It is probably no coincidence that the longer the film goes on, the more we stay with the sister. Optimism is fine, as long as it doesn’t cause you to depart from reality or your personal history.
Polen Ly comments help explain Neang’s reaction: “Some people say we have to lose in order to gain – but it’s just a cliché. It’s not you who suffers. Other people suffer.” He calls the film “a reaction to capitalism that wants us to consume more and more and is responsible for climate change and the environmental crisis.” He talked about a new ideology of pushing concrete houses which look modern from the outside but are rotten on the inside onto the former villagers.
Leang is also not merely stuck in a ritual of reacting old traditions. This is seen above all in the scene towards the end where she tries to climb a tree, falters, but reaches the top at the second attempt. At first sight its just a scene of a young woman climbing a tree. It is also intended as a metaphor for perseverance and a message to the villagers who are unhappy with the rampant incursion of industry and profit.
Resistance is building in village against the dam. Activist groups have been formed, which are receiving legal help from NGOs. Simply by organising, villagers are feeling a sense of empowerment. And yet their position is very precarious. After the flood took over their village, they moved into their ancestral land, but the government does not recognise their land rights and they are threatened with eviction.
The government offered them a fish pond as compensation. But the conditions in the pond meant that the fish could not survive. This is seen as a joke by villagers who know only too well how the authorities simply neither understand nor care for their situation. They feel slightly helpless – as Polen Ly says “if the people don’t have the power it’s difficult to talk to other parties who have more power and just build dams like this”. But they are not giving up.
This is one of the reasons for films like this. It is not an activist film – Polen Ly prefers to call it a personal film which should act as a slow burn rather than provoking short-lived anger. The film itself does not present all of the facts, but it encourages us to find out more, And it also serves as a self-standing work of art, a simple story of 2 siblings trying to get on with their life and mourn their parents in the ways that work for them.