James Ricketson's trial goes to the movies as life imitates art
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James Ricketson's trial goes to the movies as life imitates art

Phnom Penh: A Cambodian courtroom caught a glimpse of Australian James Ricketson's life as a film-maker as he tried to disprove what he said was the "nonsensical proposition" that he was a spy.

A selection of film clips from Ricketson’s work – featuring personalities including actor Bryan Brown, director Philip Noyce and snippets from a Werner Herzog film – were presented to the court as the drawn-out case continued on Friday.

“There is only one country in the world that equates documentary filmmaking with espionage, and I am in that country now,” Ricketson said.

At 69, Ricketson stands accused of gathering information detrimental to Cambodia’s national defence, and faces 10 years in prison if convicted.

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One clip, made shortly before his arrest in June last year, featured Ricketson on a desert island as part of an experiment to see how well people could function with limited food and water for eight days.

“In many ways it was an ideal preparation for my incarceration in Prey Sar prison for the past 14 months,” Ricketson said.

Australian filmmaker James Ricketson.

Australian filmmaker James Ricketson.

Photo: AP

The YouTube selections, compiled by his lawyer and his son Jesse, include footage of street children, among them Ricketson’s adopted daughter, Chap Chanti. They also feature a few choice quotations that rang true with Ricketson’s plight.

“All the time I was in jail, I used to think about this place. About coming home,” said one character gazing across an Australian landscape in Ricketson’s film Blackfellas.

“But there are some questions, once you ask them, that have to be answered for peace of mind,” said actor Bryan Brown in another of Ricketson’s films.

For Ricketson, that question is: “Which country am I spying for?” That question has not yet been addressed in court documents, by trial judges or by the Prosecutor Sieng Sok, who closed his case on Thursday after presenting two emails and a handful of photographs as evidence.

We’re always worried about his safety ... He’s in a harsh prison environment ... There are all sorts of ways things could go horribly wrong.

James Ricketson's son, Jesse

The court session comes a day after Ricketson’s documents comprising his case file – some 1600 documents from his computer and his correspondence with Australian authorities “outlining the great many irregularities” in his case – were confiscated by prison guards.

Ricksetson’s lawyer, defender of Khmer Rouge senior leader Khieu Samphan, told the judges that two witnesses did not need to be present to wrap up proceedings – a suggestion that saw Ricketson sit bolt upright and interject.

“I disagree. I’m sorry. They were witnesses to my arrest,” Ricketson said.

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The two witnesses in question, Bun Chhork and Rosa, are the husband and eldest daughter of Chanti, who gave birth to her ninth child on Thursday.

Chanti on Monday testified that seven men had seized both her and Ricketson and “choked” him as he was forced to the ground during his arrest in June last year.

Ricketson’s family have concerns for his safety in jail. Last week, Ricketson said he was attacked by a mentally unwell inmate who had repeatedly made verbal threats against him.

“We’re always worried about his safety,” said Ricketson’s son Jesse outside the courtroom. “He’s in a harsh prison environment. You don’t have safety guaranteed, whether its violence, whether it’s illness, there are all sorts of ways things could go horribly wrong in there. We are constantly terrified about that. We need him out of there as quick as possible.”

Jesse added that it was another positive day in court, where his father’s status as a filmmaker was established and the three pieces of “so-called evidence” did not point to any crime.

“It’s an open and shut case in my opinion, I hope the court sees it that way,” he said.

Ricketson was probed on funding he received from the Australian Film Commission and Screen Australia.

“The thing about Screen Australia and the Australian Film Commission before it is that it’s a government funded body but it stands at arm’s length from the government,” he said. “The bureaucrats in Canberra keep a very close eye on how this [money] is spent.”

“My purpose or objective in making documentaries is to provide the audience with the information they need to make up their own minds about the subject in the film.”

The trial is set to continue on Monday.