About the Film

Excavators seen in the early morning at Boeung Kak lake, Phnom Penh. © Chris Kelly, 2010

“The Cause of Progress” tells the story of the lives of three Cambodians caught up in the country’s chaotic and often violent economic progress, set against the backdrop of the shifting political, religious and familial landscapes of modern-day Cambodia.

Shot over the course of three years, the film is a unique and intimate portrait of modern Cambodia. At times poignant and emotional, at others violent and chaotic, the film explores the impact of progress on modern society – from the corruption of the national religion, to the disintegration of the family, to the abusive power and kleptocracy of the ruling political elite.

The film’s title is a quote from Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” Conrad called the exploitation by the white colonialists he found in the Congo – personified by the central character Kurtz – the “vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience.” The decay and inhumanity he saw in the Congo is still there 100 years on, as it is in many developing countries.

Cambodia is more contradictory, more complicated. It’s not the white colonialists who are looting and pillaging, but the countries ruling elite,  its rich and powerful businessmen.

What is happening in Cambodia is happening all over the developing world, from South America to Africa to Eastern Europe – land is being colonised by the developed world and the rightful owners are being displaced. This film addresses one of the most pressing issues of our time.

Each of the three personal narratives focuses on a different aspect of the story but forced evictions and land grabbing reoccur across all three. The Venerable Loun Sovath is a Human Rights Defender who uses video as part of his activist campaigning, all the while fighting against the corruption within his religious order.  Sopheap, facing eviction and waiting for a new home, is struggling to start a new business while she tries to cope with her slowly disintegrating family. And Srey Pov – at the front lines of a high profile forced eviction – comes face to face with a corrupt political elite and the sometimes difficult relationship between global institutions and the developing world.

The film shows the human cost of progress, the price that is paid for such chaotic development and the impact it is having on Cambodian society.

The film’s landscapes are often violent and destructive, Boeung Kak lake and Borei Keila now resemble a war-torn cityscape, void of any life, giving the impression of an epic and desolate landscape – lawless and unpredictable. The soundtrack of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis are a perfect match, offering a dark, orchestral score that fits the barren landscapes and relentless threat of violence.

This film will offer a unique insight into a country at a pivotal time in its development, finally shaking off the legacy of the past and the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia’s future direction is uncertain.

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Filmmaker Chris Kelly filming at Boeung Kak lake. Image © Nicolas Axelrod 2010.

This blog is also contributed to by Magnum photographer John Vink, Australian born photographer Nicolas Axelrod and the writer Darran Anderson.