Controversial Filmmaker Is Saved By Unlikely Hero

Some of the best documentaries make us confront the cruel realities of our world. Fast food can wreck your insides. Your favorite celeb isn’t as cool as you thought. People are suffering in a faraway land. You know, the stuff we try not to think about.

One Australian man made it his life’s mission to dig into and expose these uncomfortable truths, and it landed the filmmaker in serious trouble. After facing scrutiny in an unfamiliar country, he faced a cruel fate — unless an unlikely hero could save him…

James Ricketson of Australia, 69, worked tirelessly in humanitarian pursuits for decades. His passion for helping others spilled over into every part of his life. 

James Ricketson / Facebook

As a child, James was totally mesmerized by movies. So, naturally, it wasn’t long before he picked up a camera himself. Through film, James could tell stories that he felt people needed to see and hear. 

Subculture Entertainment

After college, James studied at the Australian Film and Television School. From the jump, he was an ambitious artist, and he produced several feature films. But, his real passion came from making documentaries. 

Hollywood Reporter

In 1973, James had his first big break. He organized and filmed the infamous high-wire walk by stuntman Philippe Petit on Sydney’s Harbour Bridge. The short film was included in the 2008 Academy Award-winning documentary “Man On The Wire.”

Open ABC

For decades, James devoted his life to making films. But in his later years, his subject of study was Cambodia. His 1997 documentary “Sleeping with Cambodia” exposed the realities of children suffering abuse due to trafficking.

Jenny NLF / Flickr

Uncovering injustice and advocating for the voiceless were James’ core values. So, it made sense that he also felt compelled to support someone in need in his personal life. James adopted Roxanne Holmes, a young woman attempting to overcome years of serious abuse, neglect, and addiction.

In and out of jail, Roxanne was at a critical place. James stepped up to the plate, saying “something had to break the cycle of her being shifted from one youth detention centre to another.” He was the parent she never had, even when she tested his boundaries.


Adjusting to her new surroundings was a journey. Roxanne would lapse into bad behavior, stealing from James, holding up strangers, getting arrested, and continuing problems with substances. No matter what, James never gave up on her.

Dave Kiddle / Flickr

Years passed, and James continued to make trips to Cambodia. His work with youth, and combating poverty didn’t go unnoticed. Government officials in Cambodia marked him as a trouble maker. 

Asian Correspondent

Prime Minister Hun Sen cracked down on political opposition, so in 2014, James was fined six-million Cambodian riel, around $1800, and was given a suspended two-year prison sentence. All because James threatened to broadcast accusations that a church was trafficking children. Luckily, he didn’t end up serving the time…

The Cambodia Daily

But the authorities didn’t back down in their pursuit. In June 2017, James attended a rally against the opposition of the Cambodia National Rescue Party in Phenom Pen. He flew a drone over the crowd to film the protest. In an instant, he was apprehended.

Phnompen Post

The charge? Espionage. Whisked away in handcuffs, James was angry. He was a filmmaker, not a criminal. They locked him away in Prey Sar prison despite there being no proof of his supposed crimes. Beaten and abused, he spent a grim year awaiting trial.

Life Daily

Exhausted and desperate to be released, James had high hopes for his trial. In August 2018 they delivered a verdict: he was sentenced to six more years in Cambodian prison! How could he possibly survive this torture?

Australian Screen Forum

Public outcry over the injustice of James’ harsh sentence was immediate. Australian politicians applied diplomatic pressure. Human rights groups rallied in support, as did members of the Australian Film community. But none were successful…

Asian Correspondent

But no one was more determined to free James than his adoptive daughter, Roxanne. She started a campaign to have her father’s sentence overturned. “He gave me a voice,” she said. “When every other adult turned their back on me, James stood by me and made me strong.”

Roxanne Holmes / Facebook

And James needed all the help he could get. As an older man, the gruesome conditions took a toll on his health. There were 140 men packed into a cell, infested with lice, and other vermin. Relief couldn’t come soon enough.

Geoff Sterns

Roxanne vowed to get the Australian government to intervene further. She was vocal in her outcries that politicians must put increased pressure on Cambodian officials to release James. She started a petition and gathered 107,688 signatures in support.

Asian Correspondent

Then, somewhat abruptly, Roxanne’s fierce campaign proved a success! The crowned King of Cambodia, Norodom Sihamoni, bestowed a royal pardon. On September 21st of 2018, James was released.

Radio Free Asia

Overwhelmed with emotion, James was shepherded out of the prison. Within a few days, he was deported back to Australia. James was eager to get home to his family but sad to abandon his friends in need in Cambodia. He feared he never would be allowed to return.

Life Daily

Roxanne was reunited with her dad, and now James’ whole family could sleep soundly knowing he was safe. Who would have guessed a girl society had given up on would one day fight tooth and nail to save the man that once saved her?


But for James, the fight to help the impoverished and underrepresented is not over. Despite his family’s concerns, he plans to continue to use journalism and film to expose corruption in Cambodia.

James Beeching / Facebook

James has started building a foundation called Family to Family. He wants to use his brief moment in the spotlight to bring attention to the plight of the Cambodian people.”That’s typical of James,” Roxanne said. “He’s the most humanitarian man you could ever meet.”

James Beeching / Facebook

When facing incredible odds, it takes a fighter to overcome and make a big difference in the world. Just look at what’s happening in one small Indian village…

The Indian island of Majuli is located within the Brahmaputra river system in Northeast India. Over 140 villages have been established on the island, and over 150,000 people call Majuli home. But these are not the only things that make this island special…

Ritu Raj Konwar

 Majuli is actually the world’s largest river island. These special islands are really just big sandbars that form throughout a riverbed; sometimes the sandbars are so large, people can actually live on them — that’s the case with Majuli.

 But, in the heat of a river’s current, the island changes shape and size frequently, which poses a threat to inhabitants. In fact, over the last 70 years, the island has shrunk by more than half it’s original size.

Why the change? Because during the monsoon season (July to September) large embankments were built up by the river to protect larger towns from flooding. This does not allow the riverbanks to naturally flood, and therefore directs all of the excess water down the river towards Majuli.

 As the river water erodes the island, space for the 150,000 inhabitants shrinks. Since 1991, over 35 villages have been washed away, forcing villagers to leave the only home they ever knew.

Indian authorities are concerned that within the next 20 years the entire island of Majuli will be completely submerged and the 140 villages left will be lost forever. If they don’t do something about it now, their fears will become a reality.

The people aren’t the only ones being affected either. Animals are being severely affected by the intense flooding, resulting in major casualties. In fact, the snake population alone has dropped by 45 percent over the last five years! 

When the river flooded the island, it would pick up the snakes and carry them downstream. The water dumped the snakes onto tree-less sandbars surrounding Majuli, leaving them exposed to the excessive heat and the harsh Indian sun.

One man, in particular, Jadav Payeng from the Mising tribe of Majuli, grew up watching the island shrink. He watched villages wash away, he watched animals torn from their homes, and he watched the villagers grow more and more concerned. 

Jitu Kalita

As a young boy, Jadav loved nature, animals (yes, even the snakes), and anything that grew. This impacted him from a very young age and sparked his interest in environmental activism and forestry conservation.

William Douglas McMaster

He was determined to save the island and not just himself, but for his family and tribe. So at the age of 16, he decided to dedicate his life work to do just that: saving Majuli. How he did it was no small feat…

  One day in 1979, he started planting trees. He managed to get seeds and made his way to a large, barren area on Majuli. He dug a small hole using a stick, dropped them in the hole, and left the rest to nature.

William Douglas McMaster

He knew that planting one tree wouldn’t do much of anything, so day after day he returned and planted as many trees as he possibly could. His hope was that the trees would grow tall with deep roots that would hold the earth in place and protect the island from erosion. 

William Douglas McMaster

 After 40 years of consistent work, he’d planted an entire forest on the island, over tens of thousands of trees. This work resulted in a forest that was far larger than the size of New York’s Central Park!


The forest was rightfully dubbed Molai Forest. He said that planting trees became much easier once he could take seeds from the trees that already existed in his forest. Still, Jadav faced struggles each day…

William Douglas McMaster

With his forest continually growing, animals returned to the area. Elephants, Bengal tigers, and rhinos to name a few now call this area of Majuli home. With the return of animals, Jadav said poachers became a problem once more.

William Douglas McMaster

Jadav said, “All species on this planet are animals, including humans. There are no monsters in nature except for humans. Humans consume everything until there is nothing left.” 

William Douglas McMaster

 In 2015, he was awarded the Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian honor in India. Additionally, he was recognized by many other local Indian establishments for dedicating his life to the conversation of Majuli.

William Douglas McMaster

Still, Jadav was frustrated by the lack of real help he has received. He suggested planting coconut trees because they’re strong and straight, which would help anchor the soil, and coconut harvesting would boost the economy, all within five years. But sadly no one adopted his proposal.

Jadav refused to give up. He had dreams of seeing Majuli return to the lush green forest it once was before humans so drastically altered it. He believed that he could save the island of Majuli. He stated, “I will continue to plant until my last breath.”

101 India

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