Filmmaker and journalist John Pilger, whose 1979 film Year Zero: the Silent Death of Cambodia was credited with alerting the world to the devastation of Cambodia and its people after the reign of Pol Pot and the murderous Khmer Rouge, has added his voice to a rising international chorus calling for the release of jailed documentary-maker James Ricketson.
On August 30, a Cambodian judge sentenced Ricketson to six years in jail on unsubstantiated charges of espionage. The court ruled based on flimsy evidence, that the Australian filmmaker worked for an unnamed foreign power to undermine and overthrow Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government.
State prosecutor Seang Sok did not call any witnesses during the hearings, could not name a single victim of Ricketson’s alleged activities and could not prove he was paid by anyone to carry out espionage. The court’s guilty verdict shocked and dismayed observers far and wide and made a mockery of Cambodia’s already much-derided judicial system.
The London-based Pilger has a history of helping Cambodia when the country needed it most through his stories, movies and documentaries that highlighted the need to assist the traumatized population and rebuild the country after the murderous Khmer Rouge period.
He and others have urged the Australian government to apply more pressure on Hun Sen to release the elderly filmmaker on humanitarian grounds. Many feel Canberra has pulled its punches in calling for his release to maintain bilateral relations.
Ricketson is almost 70-years-old, his health is failing and his family and friends fear he won’t survive much longer in Phnom Penh’s notoriously harsh Prey Sar prison.
He has already spent more than a year in the detention facility waiting to be tried, during which time he was forced to sleep on a concrete floor shoulder-to-shoulder with other prisoners in appalling conditions.
In 1979, when the Vietnamese army swept into Cambodia and pushed the Khmer Rouge back into the jungles along the Thai border, Pilger was one of the first Western journalists to report from Phnom Penh.
The aftermath of the Khmer Rouge’s radical Maoist regime shocked him and the movie he made showing the human devastation contributed to eventual substantial foreign aid flows to Cambodia.
Sweden, Australia and other countries abandoned the charade of continuing to recognize the defunct Pol Pot regime thanks to Pilger’s revealing film.
In 1989, Cambodian leader Hun Sen personally thanked Pilger for his “invaluable work in helping to rescue the Khmer people.”
Pilger was later invited to Hun Sen’s office, where the Cambodian leader personally thanked him for awakening the world to the realities in Cambodia through his movie and the many television appearances he made around the world talking about the horrors he saw after the Khmer Rouge’s fall.
The award-winning documentary-maker narrowly escaped death in an ambush while filming in Cambodia in 1979 after being put on a Khmer Rouge “death list.” A respected writer and filmmaker, Pilger took life-threatening risks to tell a story he later said needed to be told.
Now, Pilger would like Hun Sen to return the favor and release Ricketson. After his conviction, Ricketson’s adopted daughter Roxanne Holmes started a petition calling on Canberra to push for her father’s release. So far more than 105,000 people have signed on, with Pilger adding his name to the petition on Wednesday.
“James Ricketson is a fine film-maker and journalist, who has used his work to raise social awareness and to support the victims of the scourge of poverty,” Pilger wrote on September 12. “The Australian Government has the responsibility to do a great deal more to help an Australian citizen in urgent humanitarian need.”
Pilger is not the only well-known person to push for Ricketson’s release. Acclaimed Hollywood film director Peter Weir, who took the stand in the Phnom Penh court during the trial to give Ricketson a character reference, is also among his supporters.
The director of movies such as Picnic at Hanging Rock, Gallipoli, Dead Poets Society, Green Card and many others told the court Ricketson had been his student in a filmmaking class in Australia and he had known him for decades. He stressed Ricketson was not a spy or involved in espionage.
Entertainment industry heavyweights such as Sam Neil, who starred in movies such as Jurassic Park and The Hunt For Red October, Rachel Ward (Against All Odds), Bryan Brown (Cocktail, FX, Breaker Morant), Greta Sacchi (Brideshead Revisited, Presumed Innocent) and Matilda Brown (The Death and Life of Otto Bloom) held up placards calling on the Australian government to intervene and help Ricketson while they were filming a movie at Sydney’s Palm Beach this week.
Others have spoken publicly in Australia and held up placards at gatherings calling on the government to find its voice and help a citizen in need of assistance.
Ricketson’s biggest supporters, however, have been his adopted daughter Roxanne Holmes and her sister and brother. Like the movie stars who know Ricketson and have worked with him, they also fear he will die in a decrepit Cambodian prison.
His children describe him as a slightly eccentric humanitarian whose mission in life is to highlight the plight of those who need help.
“As a filmmaker and journalist, James has always traveled the world sharing people’s stories and documenting their lives through his lens,” Roxanne told Asia Times on Wednesday.
“His passion for humanity often shone the spotlight on the ‘poor and powerless.’ His compassion is so huge that he simply refused to walk away. He would literally give you the shirt off his back.”
Holmes, Ricketson’s adopted daughter, said her own life was a good example of Ricketson’s compassion for those struggling to get through life.
A photo taken 20 years ago of Roxanne Holmes and James Ricketson. Photo: Roxanne Holmes
A troubled young woman who had been abused through her childhood, Roxanne was in a government care facility with little hope of a normal life when Ricketson heard her story and applied to take custody of her. At the time, Ricketson was filming a documentary at the facility for juveniles in Sydney’s rough Western suburbs.
Thirty years later, and with patience, love, kindness and compassion, Roxanne credits Ricketson with turning her life around. She has been a key player in the push to get him released.
A year ago she started a petition – change.org/freejames – which now has more than 105,000 signatures from actors, journalists, academics and Cambodian communities calling for his release.
While pressure is mounting on the Cambodian and Australian governments to free a man convicted in what most see as a travesty of justice, time is running out for the ailing Australian filmmaker. If Pilger decides to make another film about Cambodia, he will have a good cast of actors ready to step up and play the lead role.