Kalyanee Mam / Cambodia/USA / 2013 / 83 mins
Winner of last year’s Sundance World Cinema Jury Prize for Best Documentary, Kalyanee Mam’s A River Changes Course demonstrates that sometimes it is best to let your subject speak for itself. Focusing on three families from different parts of her native Cambodia, Mam’s film portrays a country where rapid development has forced its people to an impassable crossroads: a place where tradition is no longer sustainable and yet its replacements remain unviable. Avoiding narration and offering minimal interjection from behind the camera, Mam simply aims her lens and watches their lives – the work, the strife and the moments of contemplation. The result is sometimes bleak, but always beautiful.
A remote mountain jungle where locals subsist on potatoes and bamboo, a floating village of fishermen on the Tonlé Sap River and a rice farming township outside Cambodia’s capital of city Phnom Penh may each seem far removed from the lifestyles of the west, but the hardships these people face are all rooted in our world. With the country racing toward industrialisation, the resulting deforestation, dwindling fish supplies and the acquisition of land by big businesses leaves little room for these small and formerly self-sufficient communities. Instead we see stories like that of Khieu Mok, who moves to Phnom Penh in hope of finding work in a garment factory. Soon she finds herself among countless others scraping by on $61 per month, scarcely able to afford rent for a bare, one room apartment, let alone send money to her family. Meanwhile, back in the countryside, only older generations and infants remain, left tackling hard labour their bodies simply cannot withstand.
In one of the film’s most moving sequences, a series of female factory workers relate their experiences since moving to the city. The interviews are conducted separately, but the words used almost identical. “I have worked in factories for years, but have saved nothing.” “I tell people not to come.” “One more year, then I’ll go home.” “I want to look after animals.” “I want to work in the rice fields.” Yet what makes Mam’s film truly captivating is its refusal to simplify Cambodia’s complicated relationship with progress. Indeed, even after returning home, Khieu remains hopeful. “In my heart, I really want our village to be like Phnom Penh,” she says. “We would be so happy.”