Australian filmmaker James Ricketson befriended the poor and irritated the powerful in Cambodia

Australian filmmaker James Ricketson befriended the poor and irritated the powerful in Cambodia

Australian filmmaker James Ricketson befriended the poor and irritated the powerful in Cambodia

Updated 13 June 2017, 7:55 AEST

An Australian filmmaker charged with espionage in Cambodia is known for an uncompromising style that's gained many admirers and maybe just as many enemies, Liam Cochrane writes.

The video shows a Cambodian man with a mangled foot pulling himself along on his belly, led on a string by a girl who looks about five years old.

He moves painfully slowly along the busy road, stopping occasionally to pray as a few bank notes are dropped into his faded plastic basket.

The video was shot and posted on YouTube by James Ricketson, with the title: "Cambodia - a suitable new home for refugees to Australia?".

It's the sort of uncompromising style that's gained Ricketson many admirers and perhaps just as many enemies.

"I think he irritates authorities," says long-time friend Charles Waterstreet, a barrister, TV producer and the inspiration for the character Rake.

"He's always feisty and brave in his endeavours to right perceived wrongs."

Perhaps too feisty.

Ricketson has been being charged with espionage — specifically collecting information for a foreign state that could prejudice Cambodia's national defence.

If found guilty he could spend 10 years in jail.

Local media filmed Ricketson as he was led, handcuffed, from a Cambodian court to a waiting car late last week.

The 68-year old questioned the presence of local media in the restricted area.

"How come you guys can get in here?" he asked calmly.

"It says no press. No press."

Those few words are the only public statement from Ricketson since his arrest on June 3.

Documentary 20 years in the making

The controversial figure has his supporters in Cambodia and Australia.

"I've known James for well over two decades," Mr Waterstreet told the ABC.

"He's made terrific documentaries and actual feature films concerning disturbing issues such as the treatment of Aboriginals."

Ricketson won an Australian Film Industry award for Best Screenplay Adaptation for the 1994 film Blackfellas, which he also directed.

Since then, he has been drawn to Cambodia, working on a documentary project that's already been more than 20 years in the making.

Chanti's World follows a young woman and her family as they eke out a life on the streets of Phnom Penh.

They consider him part of the family but are too scared about police retaliation to speak to media.

"He's a monk among the living," Mr Waterstreet said.

"[He] lives a very unpretentious life and he'd give away his last $10 to somebody."

Vex, lies and videotapes

But Ricketson also has detractors across Phnom Penh and beyond.

In 2014, he was convicted of defamation over claims made against a Brisbane-based church that took in two children of Chanti — his documentary subject.

Last year, he was found guilty of defaming an organisation that finds and prosecutes foreign paedophiles.

Screen Australia has banned contact with him after a sustained campaign of letters and blogs about funding.

In 2012, his one-man sit-in, which he dubbed "Occupy Screen Australia" ended with his arrest and an order than he not go within 1 kilometre of their office.

He violated the order the next day.

The Cambodian Children's Fund (CCF) published a series of "factsheets" last year to counter Ricketson's allegations against founder and fellow Australian, Scott Neeson.

"James Ricketson has a long history as a serial harasser of individuals, organisations, government departments and officials across the world," said one of the publications.

"To date, CCF has chosen not to litigate against Mr Ricketson," the organisation wrote.

"Mr Ricketson's blogs attract such a low readership and are so obviously lacking in credibility that CCF does not believe they merit spending large sums on lawyers, funds which its donors expect to be spent on programs supporting impoverished Cambodian children."

Mr Neeson declined to comment about Ricketson's arrest last week.

Spying in a crowded place

Government-aligned media said Ricketson's arrest was linked to him flying a drone over an opposition rally on June 2.

"Well, we're pretty concerned about the precedent it sets," said Nathan Thompson, president of the Overseas Press Club of Cambodia.

"The flying of a drone, it happens quite a lot and to be arrested and charged with spying for that, seems to us to be quite excessive."

A photograph showed Ricketson, a tall man, appearing to operate a drone among a crowd of Cambodians.

"If he's a spy, he's certainly not the covert type," joked a friend, who asked to remain anonymous while the case was underway.

Cambodian police have given no details about the espionage allegations or even confirmed the charge is linked to the drone.

Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade confirmed last week it is offering consular assistance but wouldn't say more due to privacy issues.

"The Australian authorities should be jumping up and down," Mr Waterstreet said.

Since being charged, Ricketson has been moved from police detention to Phnom Penh's main overcrowded jail while he waits for his day in court.