VIFF 2013 Review: A River Changes Course

Daily life around the Tonle Sap River in Cambodia and potential changes is the subject in A River Changes Course.
Daily life around the Tonle Sap River in Cambodia and potential changes is the subject in the documentary A River Changes Course.

A River Changes Course is one of the many documentaries being shown at the VIFF. It has its own message to say and it says it by the way a family lives.

The film focuses on three families that live on the Tonle Sap River: the Math family, the Moh family and the Sabourn family. The Math family is a fishing family who rely on fishing for their income. The Mok family works the rice farms but it’s hard considering the mother has a big family to raise. The Samourn family is an indigenous family living in an agricultural area that help to keep their family with a decent income.

Things have not been easy for either family. Sari Math must quit school to help the family but the fishing population of the river is dwindling. Khieu Mok, the eldest daughter of the Mok family, leaves the family farm for the capital Phnom Penh for a factory job to help pay her family’s debts. And Sav Samourn notices the land she’s always known as home being bulldozed for the sake of factories and farms for export. It hurts her as she always called the area ‘home’ whether through good or bad times.

The object of the film was to get the people to tell their stories. There’s no narrator. There’s just the camera showing the family through their everyday lives. Whether it be fishing from a boat, reaping harvest or working in the factory, or selling what they’ve made, it shows the difficulties they go through to make a living. It even shows the children of the family working in the farms, from the boat or even near the fish market. That shows childhood ends early and one makes a worker of themselves at an early age. It also shows conversations with those in jobs associated with the subjects being filmed. Just as Khieu talks of her difficulties in making a livable wage at the factories, two of her other co-workers talk of their own difficulties. Basically this documentary about the lives of three families in Cambodia showcase the lives of millions.

Even outside of the images of the people working and struggling, other scenes also send a message too. One is of a young boy singing a song with lyrics; “Marry me and I will make you rich.” Many times in the film, you will hear people sing songs in which they composed themselves. Another is seeing the small children in school learning how to read. Another is where the family gathers in a town area to watch television: one television per village. Another is even when it’s raining in the area but the young boys see it as swim time in the river. That’s a reminder that despite the hardships, childhood does exist. Actually all the images that don’t deal directly with the main plot say something.

One thing about the film is that it’s not just a showcase of daily life in Cambodia but it also shows glimpses of hope for the nation. We shouldn’t forget that Cambodia has a troubled past. There’s the dictatorship of the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot in the late 1970’s where 2 million Cambodians were slaughtered. Cambodia has struggled to rebuild but it hasn’t been easy especially since the country is under a fixed democracy. Agriculture and fishing have always been ways of life in Cambodia but it’s always been conditional depending on the crop year or fish catch. The factory work offer some hope, albeit limited. Just as land is cleared for factory land or cropland for China, Khieu talks about the potential for better chances closer to home. Khieu’s mother talks of her son being a migrant worker in China. Even the images of the young children in school show an image of hope. Especially while Sari is talking in the background of quitting at Grade 7 and lucky to get that far. I believe that’s why it’s titled A River Changes Course as it shows potential changes for Cambodia.

However despite the images of hope for the future, it does come at a price for others. Sav is completely unhappy with the deforestation as this has been a land she has always called home, being indigenous. What’s seen as hope or a future for others can be seen as a big loss for someone like Sav. She even says: “We’ve worked so hard on this land and now they’ve come to destroy it all. Sooner or later it will all be gone.” It also shows that the title A River Changes Course does not completely have a positive meaning.

This documentary is not just a showcase of life in Cambodia but also a ‘homecoming’ for director Kalyanee Mam. She was born in Cambodia and emigrated with her family of nine to the USA in 1980 as refugees of the Khmer Rouge regime. She is a law graduate of Yale and UCLA Law School and has worked as a legal consultant in Syria and Iraq. Mam has also done film work along the way. She completed her first documentary Between The Earth And Sky in 2009. She also worked in the cinematography in the Oscar-winning documentary Inside Job. Mam is now working on another documentary Power of Pearl, due for release in 2015.

Mam also took time at the VIFF showing of A River Changes Course where she told her story of her family escaping Cambodia for the United States and living as refugees. She told about why she did the documentary and also about some of the raw deals Cambodia is getting in terms of creating crops for China, like none of the harvested crop going to Cambodians: all straight to China for ethanol. I myself asked her a question about politics in Cambodia: if it’s a democracy or dictatorship. She told of how fixed a democracy it is right now. Nevertheless she and other Cambodians believe in a hope for the future. In fact Mam made mention that when Khieu casted her ballot, she said it was for a livable wage. A River Changes Course is a chance for her to tell the story of her homeland across the world in hopes for a better tomorrow. In fact you’ll learn more about it at the film’s official website and how you can help too.

A River Changes Course has already received a lot of acclaim. It’s already received the Grand Jury prize for documentaries at this year’s Sundance. It has also won top documentary prizes at the Green Film Festival in Seoul and the San Francisco Film Festival. It has also received other awards such as Best Feature at the Atlanta Film Festival, a Human Rights Award at the River Run Film Festival, a Best Feature award at the Yale Environmental Film Festival, and a Grand Jury Conscience award at the Docville International Documentary Film Festival. I’m sure there’s more to come.

A River Changes Course is Kalyanee Mam’s most acclaimed work yet. It is an accomplishment too as it helps open people’s eyes towards what is happening in her land of origin and raise awareness and help. I believe that art can make for a better future. Much the same way The Killing Fields opened people’s eyes over what happened during the Khmer Rouge, this documentary can shed a big light to its aftermath many decades later.


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