A River Changes Course

83 Minutes - Director Kalyanee Mam

This beautifully-filmed documentary focuses on three families in rural Cambodia as they struggle to adapt to the rapid economic changes in their country in the past decade, which have brought riches to some, but led to environmental degradation and social dislocation to many more. The film-maker Kalyanee Mam follows a family of forest-dwellers in the north-east, a fishing family who live on the Tonle Sap river and a farming family just south of the capital Phnom Penh. Each of the families is struggling: the forests are being cut down to harvest the timber and to make way for plantation-style farming of cassava and rubber; the inland fisheries are being depleted by industrial fishing that has decimated the fish-stocks; farmers are being preyed upon by unscrupulous bankers who give them loans at interest rates so high they are always struggling to pay back what they owe.

The film, which won the Grand Jury Prize for world cinema documentary at the Sundance Festival, does not seek to editorialize, simply allowing the families to speak for themselves, and that contributes to the film’s power. The daughter of the farming family decides to go to the capital Phnom Penh to earn money in a garment factory that her mother can use to pay off the family debts. As the daughter gets on the bus, leaving her family behind for the first time, the camera lingers on the mother’s face as she forces back tears – sadness about parting from her daughter, and about her overall debt predicament in general. The 14-year old son of the fishing family decides against further school because he believes his family needs him to earn some money to support them.

Cambodia is best known for the Killing Fields of 1975-79, when Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge soldiers killed some 1.7 million people, and much of what has been written and filmed about the country focuses on the horrors of the Khmer Rouge period. Kalyanee turns a new page to show the beautiful landscapes of Cambodia, while at the same time illustrating the threats to the rural populations that live in those landscapes. In a q&a after the film Kalyanee pointed out that the themes of her film are common to many developing countries. She chose to focus on Cambodia because she was born there, before fleeing the country with her family in 1979, and ending up emigrating to the US. Although she still speaks Khmer, the Cambodian language, she has acquired an American accent, and she says that saved her almost certainly from getting thrown into jail when she was filming some of the controversial industrial projects in the capital Phnom Penh. Just like Cambodia’s famous sweet and sour fish soup, somlor machu youn, the film leaves a bitter-sweet taste – we learn enough about each of the three families during the course of the film to start to like them, while at the same time fearing for their futures, particularly the futures of their children.