Having enjoyed success for decades as a well-known Australian Filmmaker, James Ricketson decided to broaden his horizons and make a movie about the ongoing civil war in Cambodia. His intentions were above board and professional, but the Cambodian Prime Minister didn’t see it that way.
When Ricketson was caught by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s cronies flying a drone over an opposition party rally, he was arrested and thrown into jail, living in what can only be described as a living hell. But Ricketson never gave up hope, and nor did his loving daughter.
James Ricketson, who was born in 1949 in Australia, studied at the Australian Film and Television School after college. He was an avid movie buff as a child and during his teen years and went on to make a number of feature films and documentaries. His first big break came back in 1973 when he traveled to film a spectacle at the north pylons of Sydney Harbour Bridge in Sydney, Australia.
More than 40 years ago, Ricketson helped to organize and then film stuntman Philippe Petit’s daring high-wire walk between the Sydney Harbour Bridge. He subsequently released a short film of the daredevil walk on DVD. He also released the well-known, Academy Award-winning documentary called ‘Man On Wire’ about Petit’s World Trade Center walk a few months later.
Ricketson didn’t stop there, as he went on to direct three feature films between 1978 and 1994, and documentaries through 2004. One of those documentaries was called “Sleeping with Cambodia,” which he filmed in 1997. Cambodia was a country Ricketson had loved, and that’s why he returned for more in 2016 when he was arrested. But back in the day, this expert filmmaker and director even became one of the founding members of the Australian Directors Guild, a position he proudly held onto for many years. What befell this man was tragic in later years.
Ricketson was earmarked for years by Cambodian authorities who considered him a nuisance and even a provocateur. Back in 2014, during yet another visit to the war-torn country, he was fined six-million Cambodian riel (approximately $1800) and given a suspended two-year prison sentence. The reason? Because he threatened to broadcast accusations that a local branch of the Brisbane-based Citipointe Church trafficked children.
The Cambodian authorities had wanted to get their hands on this man for decades, and finally, in June 2017 they got their chance. Ricketson attended a rally of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party in Phenom Penh. After filming the rally with a drone, he was promptly arrested and carted off to a kangaroo court to be charged. Once there, he was charged with espionage and held in the Prey Sar prison for nearly a year.
Ricketson’s time at Prey Sar was reportedly a living nightmare as he faced regular abuse and beatings from inmates and prison guards alike. He was relieved when his trial came around in August, 2018, but shocked when he received the devastating verdict: six years of hard time in a Cambodian prison. He was desperate, and so was his family who rallied support for this innocent man who was falsely imprisoned.
Soon after his sentencing many people and groups spoke up in defense of Ricketson. While a handful of politicians in Australia applied diplomatic pressure directly on Cambodian officials, Human Rights Watch dubbed the whole episode a “Ludicrous Charade,” and called for the filmmaker’s immediate release. But the true hero in this story is Ricketson’s adopted daughter Roxanne Holmes.
While Ricketson surely has the scars from his time in the Cambodian prison system, his adopted daughter also has some scars of her own. Holmes went through a childhood of intense sexual, physical and emotional abuse at the hands of wicked parents until she was adopted by Ricketson and his wife. He bravely took this poor child under his wing and nurtured her back to a normal life.
Holmes’ campaigning efforts to see her father freed from subhuman conditions came from a place of pure love. She tenaciously campaigned with all her might to free her father, who was suffering from health issues and had no access to medical care. But the conditions in prison were almost unbearable and could have cost Ricketson his life. He reported that it was so cramped in vermin-infested cells that he shared with 140 other inmates, that people needed to take turns laying down.
Worse for Wear
As well as being seriously sleep deprived Ricketson was reportedly malnourished, too. Having lost around 20 percent of his body weight, he also had bumps on his head and showed symptoms of pneumonia. Lice-bitten and miserable, he also had no access to the outside world and no idea that people were campaigning for his immediate release as he suffered in jail.
Holmes told reporters, according to a BBC report, that she wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for the kindness of the Ricketsons. “I honestly wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for James,” she said.”He gave me a voice. When every other adult turned their back on me, James stood by me and made me strong. I used that strength to campaign for his freedom.”
Ricketson admits that he wouldn’t have made it through had it not been for the support he received. When he got word in prison that his daughter was campaigning hard for him, he put his head down and read books to keep his sanity. “Books were my savior in prison,” he said. “I’d read 120 of them. Initially, I thought, I’ll just read 500 books. I knew, with Roxanne’s campaign, I could make life a nightmare for both [the] Australian and Cambodian governments.”
Due to the extreme conditions Ricketson was forced into, he admitted that he all but gave up hope at some points. “I can’t deny though,” he said, “there were occasions I thought, I’m just so tired. I’d happily not wake up tomorrow morning – I’m 69, I’ve had a good life. But my refusal to buckle kept me alive.” But the pressure was on at high levels of government, and some started to feel confident about his release.
Thanks to 107,688 signatures garnered on a petition website for the release of James Ricketson, as well as some effective diplomatic pressure, he received a royal pardon. Out of the blue, on September 21, 2018, a royal pardon was granted and James Ricketson was released from custody. Ricketson and his family were reportedly ecstatic at the news, especially as he had resigned himself to six years in jail.
Soon after his release, he was deported from Cambodia back to his home country of Australia. Ricketson wasted no time at all in thanking his supporters for applying public pressure that secured his release. His son and nephew also released an official statement to the press, as reported by SBS News. They spoke about the strain the family had been under since James was arrested.
James’ son Jess Ricketson and his nephew Bim Ricketson said in their statement: “The strain on our family and friends and supporters has been tremendous, but we thank everyone who has supported James and our family through this ordeal. James is almost 70, and our family has been very concerned about his health – we’re not sure how long he could have continued to endure the conditions of the notorious Prey Sar prison.”
For his part, James Ricketson wants to get back to what he does best: making movies. And while he takes the time he needs to recuperate from his ordeal, he intends to continue working to help people in need from around the world. To that end, his time in jail not only didn’t discourage him from his political activities, but it also emboldened him to want to reach out and help even more.
Jess Ricketson also agreed that it would take a miracle to stop his father from returning to do what he loves most. James even raised the possibility that he will return to Cambodia one day to film again, although his family has tried to dissuade him from that. Jess said that the surprise release from jail would enable him to “return to his passions of filmmaking, journalism and helping those who need it most.”
Family by Family
Ricketson is now planning to use his ordeal to fight the corrupt government in Cambodia and to end poverty in the country. To that end, he is setting up a foundation called Family to Family with the express purpose of bringing the plight of the Cambodian people to the forefront of the international arena. He spoke about how determined he is for his short-lived fame to benefit other people and not to be wasted.
Just 15 Minutes
“I’m determined to use my 15 minutes of fame to help impoverished families in Cambodia by releasing them from their economic jail,” he said, explaining that Family by Family will be in full swing soon. His daughter added: “That’s typical of James. He’s the most humanitarian man you could ever meet.”