Wednesday, October 24, 2012

'Stolen Children' - CHANTI'S WORLD

My dispute with Screen Australia may seem at this point (to those who have followed it) to be about an abstration: 
Has James or has he not, intimidated and placed at risk members of Screen Australia’s staff? 
If I am guilty as charged, my being banned is appropriate, but if I am not, my ‘Chanti’s World’ documentary - the catalyst for the dispute - should be assessed on its merits.
I am in Phnom Penh at present, in the 17th year of filming - the story growing more complex and interesting with each passing year:
In brief
Chanti, a very poor twenty seven year old mother of five, lives on the streets and in the slums of Phnom Penh.  Under the pretext of helping her feed, clothe and educate her kids, a Brisbane-based church, Citipointe, steals Chanti’s two oldest daughters and  refuses, over a period of four years, to return them to their mother’s care - despite Chanti’s repeated and express wishes that it do so. 
James Ricketson began documenting Chanti’s life since 1995, when she was a street kid supporting herself and her mother begging from tourists. Chanti’s starring role in “Sleeping with Cambodia” when she was ten years old led to a friendship between James, Chanti and her mother Vanna.  Over the following seventeen years the dividing line between being an observer and a participant in Chanti’s life becomes increasingly blurred as James is drawn deeper and deeper into Chanti’s life and world - a world populated by families as poor as her own struggling to survive on incomes of between $1 and $2 a day.  James is now ‘Papa’ to Chanti, her mother, her husband Chhork and her five kids - Rosa, Srey Mal, Srey Ka, James and Kevin. (Yes, James was named after the filmmaker but God-knows what possessed Chanti to call Kevin, Kevin!) Despite Chanti’s repeated declaration of “No more babies” Chanti is now pregnant with her sixth child!
For four years James has been  helping Chanti and Chhork in their to-date fruitless attempts to regain custody of Rosa and Srey Mal. In the process Citipoiinte church has twice threatened to sue James for defamation; for having accused the church of stealing Chanti’s two eldest daughter - in the sense that Aboriginal children were ‘stolen’ from their poor parents in Australia because it was believed that they would be better off growing up in institutions than with their materially poor families. As he tries to help Chanti James discovers that the ‘stealing’ of children is rife in Cambodia - the Christian and other NGOs who remove children from the care of their families and communities likewise believing that it is in the best interests of the children.
CHANTI’S WORLD begins in the present, with Chanti’s and James’ attempts to get Citipointe church to return Rosa and Srey Mal to the care of their family. Questions abound: Perhaps, despite being forced to become Christians, Rosa and Srey Mal really are better off growing up in an institution in which they receive three meals a day, an education and access to medical and dental care? Perhaps becoming a Christian and being alienated from family, community and culture is a small price to pay if, in the process, Rosa and Srey Mal are provided with opportunities in life that were denied their illiterate mother and grandmother on the streets on Phnom Penh. In exploring such questions CHANTI’S WORLD delves back 17 years to the time, in 1995, when Chanti and James first met when, through the simple act of pointing his camera at Chanti and give her $1, James took the first step into becoming an integral part of Chanti’s world.
1995. Chanti lives on the streets of Phnom Penh with her mother, Vanna. She begs money from tourists to support herself and Vanna. Begging is a job best done alone, leaving Chanti in constant danger of being kidnapped, trafficked and sexually abused. To minimize the chances of this occurring James rents a room for Chanti and her mother, arranges for Chanti to go to school and provides them with a small allowance.  He returns to Australia feeling rather pleased with himself . Before long Chanti and Vanna are back on the street – a pattern that will be repeated many times over the years as James tries to balance his documenting of their lives with his attempts to help them. He discovers that helping people in third world countries is much more complicated than it seems. It is fraught with difficulties. The pathway to hell is indeed paved with good intentions.  
When Chanti reaches her early teens she can no longer rely on her smile to charm money from tourists to support herself and Vanna. She decides to follow her best friend Sekun, also from an impoverished street family, into another form of begging – hanging out in bars frequented by men from the developed world with a predilection for having sex with teenage girls. These men do not like to use condoms and, before long, Chanti has a Eurasian daughter named Rosa. Before she is nineteen Chanti gives birth to her second daughter,  Srey Mal. 
For a few years Chanti and her family live in a slum when they can afford it and on the street when they cant. Chanti gets occasional menial jobs, runs a stand by the river selling drinks and snacks to tourists and, when necessary, picks up men in bars to support her family. Vanna is a caring and attentive grandmother – bathing, clothing and feeding the girls whilst Chanti is out earning a living or indulging in her passion for partying. Mother of two she may be but Chanti is still a teenager and she wants to have fun! Vanna’s caring for the girls is marred, on occasion, by brief bouts of mental illness that cause anguish for Chanti and confusion in the minds of her granddaughters. Whilst continuing to document their lives James tries to help in every way he can - renting them apartments to live in, buying clothes, food utensils, bags of rice and, when he can afford it, effectively supporting the family. His effoerts have a lasting impact, however, and it becomes apparent to him that Rosa and Srey Mal’s lives will, in all likelihood, unfold much as their mother’s has if they continue to grow up on the street and in slums. Chanti does not want her daughters to follow in her footsteps but seems incapable of changing her life in such a way as to prevent this from occurring – even with the James’ help. This dynamic changes when Chanti meets her husband – Chhork. He is a stabilizing influence on Chanti, refusing to allow her to indulge in her passion for partying and gambling - a pastime that most Cmabodians indulge in. Making ends meet is still hard but, by age 20, Chanti seems to have settled into being a responsible young adult. She has a job sweeping the street in the local markets, as does Vanna. The pay is not great but it is enough for them to be able to rent a small shack in a slum and to have a TV. The family is now self sufficient. Life is may be hard but it is good. Chanti is happy and Rosa has started to go to school.
A year later, however, Chanti loses her job, the family is back on the street and she has a new baby, Srey Ka. Feeding three young daughters, her mother and Chhork is hard. Like Chanti, Chhork is illiterate, has no skills and it is difficult for him to find work. James rents the family (yet another) room, buys them new pots and pans and supports them through this difficult time – aware as he is that this can be a short-term solution only. What is required is a long-term solution; a way in which the family can become self-sustaining and not be reliant on either the filmmaker’s or anyone else’s handouts. 
A medium-term solution presents itself when Citipointe church, based in Brisbane,  Australia, opens its ‘She’ refuge in Phnom Penh. It offers to help Chanti’s family by providing accommodation, food, education and medical care for Rosa and Srey Mal. The girls will be able to board in the ‘She’ refuge (just a few streets away) and stay with their family in the one room apartment one day a week. Chanti will be able to visit her daughters regularly and Citipointe will, it assures Chanti, help her get some training to enable her to get a job. Citipointe is, it assures both Chanti and James. committed to offering short term help for families in  need –  the church’s stated aim being to see the young girls in its care re-untied with their families as soon as possible. Chanti asks the James what he thinks of Citipointe’s offer. Should she accept it? James puts aside his own concerns about the evangelical agenda of the church and advises Chanti to take Citipointe up on its offer. She does so but it soon transpires that the church has other plans for Rosa and Srey Mal than those they articulated to Chanti and James. Regardless of its promises and Chanti’s wishes, Citipointe declares that the church will retain custody of Rosa and Srey Mal until they are 18 and that Chanti will be entitled to only 2 hours of supervised visits each month. Chanti’s financial fortunes changed, however. She is living on a boat parked on the banks of the Bassac river and has a stall selling drinks, fruit and snacks to tourists that is doing well enough for Chanti to buy a mobile phone. Chhork earns extra money taking tourists on river cruises. Now that she is in a position to take care of Rosa and Srey Mal, Chanti asks Citipointe, yet again, to return her daughters. The church refuses to do so, citing a ‘contract’ that Chanti has ‘signed’ with her thumb print; a ‘contract’ that, Citipointe tells Chanti, has given the church total control over the lives of Rosa and Srey Mal. When the ‘contract’ is translated it is found to contain none of the conditions the church had told Chanti it contained and was not a legal document anyway since it was not signed by any member of Citipointe church. Chanti had been hookwinked and she was not happy. In frustration she kidnapped Rosa from the ‘She’ refuge, the police were called and Chanti’s access to her daughters was limited to 2 hours per month. At the time Citipiointe had no legal right to be retaining custody of Rosa and Srey Mal against the wishes of their mother.
Chanti asks James to help get her daughters back but he is not sure whether the girls are better off growing up poor and at risk with their family or as Christians in an institution – cut off from their mother, grandmother, friends, community, culture and religion. There is a compromise solution, the filmmaker thinks – one that could guarantee the safety and well-being of Rosa and Srey Mal as they grow up whilst also acknowledging the rights of the girls to retain strong links with their mother, grandmother, step-father, sister Srey Ka and brother, James. Citipointe seems determined, however, to retain permanent custody of Rosa and Srey Mal until they are 18 regardless of Chanti’s wishes or of her ability, financially, to care for her children.  Twice, in an apparent attempt to scare off James, the church threatens legal action; to sue him for defaming the church. Neither threat is followed up. Chanti and Chhork have a fifth baby, a boy, and hope that James will buy them a tuk tuk (a three-wheeled taxi) that will enable Chanti and Chhork to house, feed and clothe all members of the family of eight (and soon to be nine) under one roof.
In Oct 2012 Chanti and James' battle to have Rosa and Srey Mal returned to their family continues


  1. It seems clear that SA simply found you too boring and irritating to work with. When they see or hear your name they run a mile to avoid having to deal with your exhausting self justfiying behavior. In the commercial world they would have every right to ignore you on those grounds if they so wished but you're right - as a public body they have a duty to give your proposals proper consideration despite how unpleasant they find you. If your films are so good why not try and get funding from elsewhere than the government teat?

  2. Dear 'Anonymous', are being 'boring' or 'irritating' or both really the kind of criteria that SA staff should be using to assess film projects?

    You are right, in the commercial world I could be ignored on any (or no) grounds at all. However, SA is not part of the commercial world in the sense that you are using the word. It's job is to develop and invest in quality projects that will appeal to Australian and overseas audiences, put bums on seats and/or make a significant contribution to Australian film and TV culture. In order to determine whether or not a project fits the bill, it needs to be read (if it is a script or script proposal) and seen - if it is a DBVD in support of a project. Both of these have been denied me - in your eyes because I am 'boring' and 'irritating' and in SA's eyes because I have intimidated and placed at risk members of Screen Australia staff. The latter is a very good reason indeed to ban a filmmaker. However, evidence of the crime the filmmaker has been accused and found guilty of should be presented in support of the charges.

    As for funding from elsewhere, i had a pre-sale that I could have used to trigger Screen Australia investment - as is the case with the majority of the Australian docks shown on the ABC and SBS. The pre-sale was of no use to me if Screen Australia simply refuses to read, view or in any way assess any project of mine - on the grounds that I have intimidated...etc. If I am guilty it would be so easy for Scren Australia to prove it with a modicum of evidence. If Screen Australia cannot produce the evidence may its because I am not guilty. This is much less about being allowed to make applications or not than it is about defending my reputation. I have never intimidated or placed at risk anyone in my life - either in my correspondence or in any other way. Being 'boring' and 'irritating' are not crimes worthy of being banned.

  3. You miss my point James - I was saying that SA didn't ever really find you intimidating or feel that their staff were at risk. They just used that as an excuse to stop dealing with you because as you point out being boring and irritating isn't good enough reason for a public body to ban you. In the real world getting on with people and not being a tedious pain in the neck is a skill that is expected if you are to gain other people's support. You're reliance on ,and email/letter bombardment of, SA is sad and pathetic irrespective of how slapdash their behavior has been. The world doesn't revolve around you. You are a long winded self righteous drama queen not a worthy victim. Grow a pair , get over it and move on. There are hundreds of useless and incompetent government bodies. The world is unfair. Enough already.

  4. Dear Anonymous

    I do not think of myself as a 'worthy victim', merely as someone who takes seriously the notion that we should be able to expect from bodies such as Screen Australia a high level of transparency and accountability.

    It is not unreasonable to expect, when a filmmaker makes an application to Screen Australia, as I did in mid- 2009, that the DVD accompanying the application, the key element of the application, (a 'promo') be viewed. It was not. A cockup. Yes, cockups happen in life and, when they do, those who are responsible should admit that the cockup has occurred, apologise and take the appropriate remedial action. This did not happen here.

    Sad and pathetic though my email/letter bombardment of Screen Australia may be it has, after two years, resulted in my being given evidence of my supposed crimes ('intimidating correspondence') that make it quite clear that I have neither intimidated nor placed anyone at SA at risk.This goes to the question of my reputation (which I value) and not whether or not SA will accept my applications.

    The project in question, where this dispute began, 'Chanti's World', is one that I have self-funded since 1996. For various stretches of that time I did so with the income earned as a taxi-driver. Working in such jobs is par for the course for many (perhaps most) filmmakers at some point in their careers. And during this time, up until 2009, I made no applications at all to Screen Australia or the AFC with this project. I was quite happy to self-fund and only approached Screen Australia when, at a critical time in filming, (2009) I had no money.

    One part of my 'Chanti's World' doco involves the 'stealing' of two young girls by an Australian-based Christian church. I have been 'bombarding' the church for four years now with letters requesting that it return the children to the care of their mother, as she has repeatedly requested. I am sure Citipionte church feels that I am 'boring', 'irritating', 'sad' and 'pathetic' and many more much worse things. So what! They have done the wrong thing and if I can, with my writing, rectify it and have the girls returned to their mother's care, why not? And if I can't, if I do not succeed, does that mean I have wasted my time and revealed myself to be self-righteous drama queen?

    Excuse me for being long-winded here, but surely, if there are 'hundreds of useless and incompetent government bodies,' our roles as citizens it to hold these bodies accountable and to do all that we can to render them useful and competent. Your attitude smacks of, "These bodies are useless and incompetent and always will be. Live with it." This is, I think, an unfortunate attitude and one that guarantees that the status quo will remain the status quo.

  5. Hi James,

    In answer to your last question in your penultimate paragraph - YES.

    1. There are many problems with the position you espouse, Anonymous. I will mention one here only. If everyone adopts the position “Let’s not do or say anything to annoy, irritate, upset, distress public servants because its a waste of time since nothing will ever change anyway,” the public servants have little incentive to be transparent and accountable. This is not just in relation to Screen Australia but to all government bureaucracies. These bureaucrats are public servants. There is a Public Service Code of Conduct, there are guidelines, Terms of Trade and mission statements that are all expressions of what the public has a right to expect from public servants. In theory at least there are also mechanisms whereby, if the public servants do not abide by ‘the rules’ they can be held accountable. This is not the case with Screen Australia. Nor is it the case of many government bureaucracies. There are those, such as yourself, who accept this as a reality that will not and cannot change and there are others who advocate for change, for transparency and accountability in our public servants. I know which society I would prefer to live in. It is one in which the public never ceases to annoy and irritate public servants who don’t play by the rules.

      Incidentally, Anonymous, this mini debate between you and I, here on my blog, is precisely the kind of dialogue that is healthy in an industry such as ours.The more the merrier. We are a diverse lot, we filmmakers, making films for diverse audiences and the dialogue between ourselves and between ourselves and the bureaucrats that run the government side of the industry should be constant and robust. As William Goldman so famously said of this business we are in, “No one knows anything.” Let a thousand blossoms (and arguments) bloom.

  6. Hey, anonymous, what do you make of Getup? Annoying? Irritating? Self-righteous? And what about 4 Corners at its best? And investigative journalism? And opposition politicians who continue to ask annoying questions and who are not prepared to accept spin answers? And all those annoying irritating lobby groups of one kind or another throwing their hat into the ring and advocating on behalf of the elderly, the mentally ill, the disabled, low paid workers and so on. The right to be an advocate is a fundamental right in a democracy. And this includes the right to be annoying and irritating. Public servants have a duty to be transparent and accountable and fig they are not we should annoy and irritate them as much as we can.

  7. Hi guys, I suppose I'm coming at this with a different perspective. I agree that ,of course, James has the right to be annoying and boring and long winded and self righteous. It's just that in his case it doesn't seem to be working very well. Annoying people is great if it leads to an effective outcome but just plain annoying if it doesn't.

    1. Dear Anonymous, I do wish that you would choose a more imaginative pseudonym than 'anonymous'. Fred, Kevin, Bruce....anything but 'anonymous'!

      QUESTION: If you had been banned, what would you do? If you had been wrongfully accused of intimidating and placing staff at Screen Australia at risk, what would you do? Accept that these were symptomatic of 'incompetent government bodies' and, regardless of the impact of them on your life, keep your mouth shut? Or might you feel inclined to be a little irritating, boring, self-righteous...whatever tactic might work to rectify the wrong that has been done?

  8. the fat lady has sungOctober 27, 2012 at 4:48 PM

    Mate, the fact that Rachel Perkins never responds to your letters is a clue. The Board will ignore you the same way RP does. They won't lift the ban or endorse it next board meeting just like they haven't at any others these past few months. They'll just pretend that you don't exist because they know that you've got nothing but your blog to fight with. To them you are just a nuisance best ignored. The fat lady has sung, mate. Give up and hope for regime change. Its coming.

    1. Yes, the board may ignore me just as Rachel has. That I have nothing other than my blog to fight with is not true. The fat lady has not sung. Stay tuned.

  9. James even if they do ever raise the ban all they will then do is watch the promo and say "interesting but not good enough for SA to support". So even if you win you lose. You've proved yourself so unpleasant to work with that they (and others) will do anything to avoid having to interact with you. You may feel you are a freedom fighter righting society's hideous wrongs. They just feel you are an irrelevant pain in the arse. You've made your bed and all that.

    1. It's difficult to know which 'Anonymous' I am dealing with here! If the ban is lifted and SA views the 'promo' and says 'interesting but not good enough for SA support', fair enough. At present, however, SA refuses to assess the project on its merits, as a result of false allegations. They 'they' (whoever 'they' may be, feel that I am an 'irrelevant pain in the arse' has no bearing at all on the quality (or lack thereof) of either my documentary or feature film projects.

  10. Question 1: Is it possible that you have a limited and inaccurate self awareness of how others view you?
    Question 2: is it possible that your involvement in Chanti's life has actually made it worse and she would be better off in every sense if she had never met you?
    Question 3: Do you ever feel that it is strange that you send hundreds of emails to both the church and SA? Maybe you attract, cause and enjoy the drama in your life.
    Question 4: ever considered a decent haircut?

    1. Again, not sure which 'Anonymous' I am responding to here. Answers:

      Question 1. I suspect that we all have a limited and inaccurate self awareness of how others view us, but of what relevance is this to the question in hand: Have I intimidated and placed at risk members of Screen Australia's staff? Is my being banned appropriate?

      Question 2. This is one of the thermos to be explored in 'Chanti's World.' The question applies not just to me but to all NGOs and to the distribution of aid through Ausaid.

      Question 3. No, I don't feel strange. In relation to Chanti, a Brisbane based Christian church has 'stolen' her two eldest daughters and I will write as many emails and letters as I need in my attempts to help Chanti. The same applies for clearing myself of the charges that have led to my being banned.

      Question 4. Yes, I've considered it. As it happens, rapid desertification of my scalp is doing the job for me. Are you a hairdresser, perhaps!

  11. The bottom line, James, is this:The SA Board cannot reverse its ban without looking very fucking stupid for having imposed it in the first place - unless it cuts Dr H loose and lets her take the rap. I doubt they'll do that so the board's response will probably be to not have the ban on the 9th Nov agenda. This will piss you off and lead to more blogging from you which SA will present as yet more evidence of your tendency to harass and intimidate, thus retrospectively validating their ban. They've got you by the short and cur lies, mate!

  12. The problem isn't SA.
    The problem isn't the Brisbane church.
    The problem isn't NSW Health.
    The problem is YOU.
    You attract and cause the trouble then revel in playing the martyr.