It has been four years since Cambodian forest activist Chut Wutty was gunned down by a military police officer in the country's Koh Kong province, but his legacy lives on in a new film that Phnom Penh officials recently banned from public screenings.
The 50-minute documentary from British producer Fran Lambrick depicts Wutty’s life as an advocate for the vast Prey Lang forest, leading patrols and groups of activists seeking to protect the landscape from the threat of illegal logging.
I Am Chut Wutty not only shows Wutty's heroism, Lambrick says, but emphasizes the rising importance of forest people and activists who attempt to continue Wutty’s work protecting Prey Lang, one of Southeast Asia's largest remaining evergreen forests.
“So the film is about forest activists – people who defend the forests in Cambodia," Lambrick told VOA. "Especially, it follows the life of Chut Wutty, whom I met ... when I was going to film with Prey Lang Network, which had a patrol. They went to investigate illegal logging at a particular site where the forests were being cut down in huge areas for a rubber plantation.”
Beginning in late 2011, the film documents members of Prey Lang Community Network (PLCN) as they launch a campaign to patrol fast-shrinking forests and stop land-concession companies from cutting down trees illegally.
In one scene, Wutty tells Lambrick that he drew strength from the activists – PLCN members alone numbered in the hundreds – who were “happy and gave me blessings.”
“It is a trait that makes it hard for me to abandon the job," he says. "If I don’t do it, there won’t be many who want to do it because they are afraid.”
Months later, Wutty was killed while on a trip to Koh Kong province with two reporters. While his killing drew strong condemnation from international and local human rights observers, the government has been criticized for not providing a thorough investigation and explanation for his death.
The Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts barred Lambrick’s film from a public screening at Phnom Penh’s Meta House on April 20, saying permissions for screening had not been sought.
Meta House, a ministry spokesman told VOA, has been asked “to abide by the law in future,” explaining that authorities would “take tough legal measures … [if it] still violated the law” by screening the film without approval.
On Monday, The Cambodia Daily reported that a ministry official reaffirmed the ban, saying any public screenings will be considered a violation of national law.
Lambrick said the film crew has contacted the government to seek permission for a future screening.
“I think they should waive this and give this film a license to be shown, because the film is very important to a lot of Cambodian people," she said. "This is important for the role of the [ministry] and of culture: it is not to suppress the stories of Cambodia’s heroes but to elevate them and to share them with the world."
A digital version of the documentary is expected to be posted online in Cambodia on April 26 to commemorate Wutty’s death.
This report was produced in collaboration with VOA's Khmer Service.