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.

The Titanic And Its Lessons

Can you believe it has been 100 years since the R.M.S. Titanic set sail on its maiden voyage, and met its doomsday? Even after all these years, the Titanic still fascinates people. There can be many reasons why it still does: its first-class settings, its huge shape, its cloud as being ‘unsinkable’ or even how it fascinates shipwreck aficionados. Nevertheless the Titanic taught people a lot of lessons. Here are the top lessons it taught me:

The First Is Sometimes The Last

From what I heard recently, the Titanic was never called ‘unsinkable’ and that title was only given after its sinking. Actually it was listed as ‘designed to be unsinkable’. If it really was unsinkable, it wouldn’t need any lifeboats, right? Nevertheless even without the title, it’s still hard to believe that such a colossal and legendary ship could sink on its maiden voyage. There have been other ships that have sunk on their maiden voyage but none as legendary as the Titanic.

Disaster Risks Don’t Fade Overnight

It was in the dead of night–exactly 11:40pm the evening of April 14, 1912–when the Titanic hit the iceberg and was doomed. There was nothing for night vision at the time. There’s also some stories that many rescue operations didn’t pick up mayday signals because service was not functioning at the time. They couldn’t have been wronger on that day.

It Wasn’t Just Women And Children First

Interesting how a ship’s survivor/fatality statistics can tell a lot. Yes, the term “women and children first” did happen on the Titanic but there was more to tell. Class also told a lot. There was only one fatality amongst the thirty children in both first and second-class. Third-class children were not so lucky as 52 of the 79 children in third-class–roughly two out of three–perished. Third-class was also unlucky for the women as 89 of the 165 women in third-class died while only 17 of the 237 women in both first and second-class and only three of the 23 women amongst the ship’s crew died. Men were the least lucky as only 318 of the ship’s 1670 men–not even 20%–survived. Class once again played a part in this as 1/3 of the men in first-class were saved while only 91 of the 630 men in second and third-class survived. Even crewmen were unlucky as 693 of the ship’s 865 crewmen died. If you want the flat class statistics of the passengers: 202 of the 325 in first-class survived, 167 of the 285 in second-class died, as did 528 of the 706 in third-class. Remember that line in Titanic uttered by Rose’s fiancé when Rose says half the people are going to die and he responds: “Not the better half.” It is true that the ‘better half’ were luckier.

Even The Rich Weren’t Immortal

I may have mentioned that those in first and second-class were the luckiest of the lucky on board but it didn’t mean they were completely lucky. Shortly after the movie was released I heard a sermon at a church where the pastor made mention to three of the fatalities who possessed hundreds of millions of dollars in wealth. I’m sure if you read books on the Titanic, you’d be surprised how many wealthy privileged people were lost that night. John Jacob Astor, the richest person on the Ship, didn’t make it that night. It’s a good reminder since our present society values wealth and celebrity more than anything else.  Surprising how some  of the wealthiest of ‘the better half’ were amongst the unlucky.

Corporate Ambition Played A Role Too

Corporation hating may be quite a phenomenon in the 21st Century but we shouldn’t forget that even a century ago, big businesses also competed and had their own casualties. As for the Titanic, it was the cream of the crop of the White Star Line’s ship line and they were hoping this ship would crush its main rival in the shipping business, the Cunard Line. Cunard’s competitive edge was speed while Withe Star’s edge was luxury. It purchased three luxury liners–the Titanic, the Brittanic and the Olympic–to beat out Cunard. By 1917, the Olympic was the only one that was still sailing and still profitable. Starting in 1927, White Star itself was purchased from shipping company to shipping company and would eventually merge with Cunard which was going through its own depression-era financial difficulties. White Star still exists as part of Carnival Corporation & PLC and have their corporate office in Liverpool. Modern Cunard ships use the term ‘White Star Service’ to describe their top-notch customer care.

Today passenger airlines have almost completely replaced Transatlantic travel but there is still one Transatlantic ocean liner left. The Queen Mary 2 is the one remaining ocean liner that offers boat trips from Southampton to New York and it owned by the Cunard Line. And yes, you get the luxurious White Star Service there.

It Takes A Major Disaster For Changes To Happen

It was only after the Titanic that better safety measures came into place. Because of the Titanic’s sinking, it was implemented that more lifeboats be on ships and that more lifeboat drills be properly carried out. Also implemented was that wireless equipment on board be manned around the clock. Started up after the Titanic was an International Ice Patrol to monitor the presence of icebergs in the North Atlantic. International harmonizing of maritime safety regulations as well as a treaty for maritime safety also started up after the Titanic’s demise. Other shipwrecks in later years would also provide changes to maritime safety. Sad how it takes a tragedy of such magnitude to make changes for the better.

There Have Been Shipwrecks With Bigger Fatality Numbers

Over 1500 fatailities definitely sounds like a huge number but it’s actually listed in Wikipedia as the fifth-worst peacetime maritime disaster ever. There have been four–one before the Titanic and three since–that have had bigger fatality numbers:

  • In 1865, the SS Sultana carrying almost 2400 along the Mississippi River exploded and caught fire just outside of Memphis. An official death toll counts 1547 fatalities.
  • In 1948, the SS Kiangya was sailing the Huangpu River just outside of Shanghai when it hit a mine and exploded. The death toll varies from 2750 to 3920.
  • In 1987, the Filipino ferry MV Dona Paz was crossing the Tablas Strait when it collided with a freight ship carrying thousands of barrels of petroleum products, igniting an explosion that sank both ships. Fatality estimates range from 1565 to 4400.
  • In 2002, the Senegalese ferry MV Le Joola was overfilled to double-capacity causing it to capsize in a rough Atlantic Ocean outside of Gambia. An estimated 1800 people lost their lives.

So that’s what I’ve learned from the Titanic over the years. It is surprising how a big ship that sinks on its maiden voyage can fascinate so many people even today. It’s also surprising how its tragic fate can also tell so much and create a lot of changes. It also reminds you that a disaster of such magnitude can even happen while you’re on vacation. We even saw this year when the Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia ran agound, capsized and sunk halfway. The Titanic’s sinking is definitely something to think about all these hundred years later. I know it has me thinking every time I’ve viewed film footage on Youtube of the Titanic departing Southampton on April 10, 1912 and the passengers waving. Did they know?


WIKIPEDIA: RMS Titanic. 2012. Wikimedia Foundation Inc.

WIKIPEDIA: White Star Line. 2012. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. <>

WIKIPEDIA: List Of Maritime Disasters By Death Toll. 2011. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. <>