Friday, 24 April 2009

Villagers make a statement

Romam Phel, Kong Yu village representative, shooting Land Lost, Culture Lost last year.

Written by Sebastian Strangio and Sam Rith
Friday, 24 April 2009

Locally produced video Land Lost, Culture Lost tells the story of a protracted land dispute with a Ratanakkiri rubber company as seen through villager's eyes

ETHNIC Jarai villagers from Kong Yu, a remote village in Ratanakkiri province, are to visit Phnom Penh for the Monday screening of a locally produced video telling the story of their protracted land dispute with a local rubber company.

Land Lost, Culture Lost, a 27-minute video made by the villagers in their local language, and with English subtitles, presents a role-play showing how local authorities and rubber contractors conspired to separate the community from ancestral land that it claims has been in its possession for centuries.

The community has been fighting for the 450-hectare plot since its alleged purchase by a company owned by Keat Kolney, the sister of Finance Minister Keat Chhon, in 2004. The legal case is currently before the provincial court in Ratanakkiri.

The film, produced onsite in Kong Yu between February and June last year, will be screened by an international audience for the first time at Meta House on Monday evening, and organisers hope the event will be a useful counterpoint to the legal advocacy on behalf of the village.

"The hope is that this is a more direct way for Kong Yu to have a dialogue with this international outside presence," said Daniel Lanctot, a media trainer from the United States who supported the villagers during the filmmaking.

Lanctot said the idea of telling the villager's story through video came after they saw an NGO video focusing on land grabbing in Ratanakkiri and felt that their story was misrepresented.

There is a sense of owning up to the story and saying that we were duped...

Their intention, he said, was to tell the story in terms that neighbouring villagers could understand and hopefully prevent a similar fate from befalling other communities.

"They decided they wanted to do a role-play, to target their neighbours more than an international audience," he said. "There's a sense of owning up to the story and saying that we were duped, but that this doesn't have to happen to your community. The end message of the film was very selfless."

Lanctot said the process presented many challenges. In addition to the fact that the village had no electricity, he said many villagers had yet to see a video camera in action and were mystified by images of themselves played back on screen.

"When [villager] Romam Nan was going around taking film, people were standing still - assuming he was taking photos. He would record and then show people their image on the camera, and villagers would freak out and start laughing. There was a real sense of magic that took a lot for people to grasp," he said. "It felt like community theatre."

Despite the fact that none of the Kong Yu community knew how to operate video equipment, Lanctot said he tried to remain as detached from the process as possible.

"I provided training to the village on how to use the camera and was there to support them, but it was entirely their project," he said. But he added that editing - which involved 20 villagers crowding around a laptop hooked up to a car battery - was a necessarily collaborative affair.

"The first English words they learned were ‘OK' and ‘cut'," he said.

Sev Twel, a Kong Yu village representative who plays a rubber company contractor in the video, said the experience of making Land Lost, Culture Lost has finally allowed the community to tell its own story.

"Through the film, we have helped document our experiences for younger generations," he said. "We can show it to high-ranking officials and others who are educated about the law, and ask them to consider whether it is right or not when the authorities and companies conspire to grab land from the people."

Although this was the village's first experience with videography, he said the experience had whetted the appetites of villagers to be involved in more projects.

"We want to make films relating to poverty and the difficulties of people in the village, and our indigenous traditions and habits. We'd like to participate in making as many films as possible," he said.

Whether or not the video has a positive effect as an advocacy tool, Lanctot said that granting the community a voice not mediated by government or NGO officials was an important step forward.

"I think that the most important aspect of doing a video project or making a story is to have it be something the community feels represents them and gives them a voice," he said. "Even if nothing comes out of this, it's something that shows all the effort they've put in."

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