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Director Kalyanee Mam Hopes to Inspire Dialogue With Documentary ‘A River Changes Course’

In the Q&A following the screening of her debut feature documentary A River Changes Course (2013) at the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF), director Kalyanee Mam told her audience: "We are disconnected from nature – each other – because of the global system we live in."

Heard or read in isolation, it's a sentiment that's familiar, didactic, even trite. But the film personalizes the adverse effects of that "global system" so elegantly, and with such a lack of editorializing or preaching, that the phrase makes a powerful impact.

The "system" Mam is speaking of is, of course, our current iteration of global capitalism, which tends to favour the financial well-being of multinational corporations over that of the environment, the health of economies of scale over that of local economies.

Mam's film puts a face on the human victims of the unceasing exploitation of ecosystems and class-divisions for natural resources and cheap labour (which, as Mam points out, anyone watching this film in the comfort of a movie theatre likely gains from as dependents to the system). She simply lets their lives unfold in a way that's not exploitative, just observational, and poetic in its distance.

Following three families of indigenous Cambodians living off land and rivers increasingly encroached on and ecologically transformed by globalization and climate change, Mam's film eschews commentary and interviews for a moving personal narrative that tells a story we all know already, but from a point of view most will not have experienced.

Mam is wise to leave the words to the film's subjects, who say more with their resigned recognition of their fading way of life than any number of experts on the subject might have. Their isolation (most have never seen a city in their lives) leads to their perspective being limited, but it's striking nonetheless – such as when mother and farmer Sav Samourn talks about how she's always sick ever since fish and wildlife started dwindling in the forests her family stays in.

Image: Sav Samourn, a mother and farmer who fears corporate encroachment of her family's land, as she watches the forests of her home in Northeast Cambodia disappear.

It's up to the viewer to figure out that Sav Samourn and her family are getting sick more often because of increasing contamination of the water in the fragile ecosystem of their home, as well as an increased dependence on food from external sources rather than that grown or caught by the families in the forest (because of dwindling wildlife and changes in soil fertility, and farming being taken over by corporations).

It's not a difficult conclusion to reach. But it makes far more of an impact when seen first-hand as a simple, devastating fact of life for people who depend on a wilderness raided down to its weakening bones. The irony is that it's all to sustain the engine of globalized economies that primarily benefit the privileged and financially mobile, not these families who are losing their livelihoods.

Sari Math, a boy from a family that lives on the water, is forced at 15 to give up school and his dreams of an education and a life outside of fishing. To alleviate increasing financial hardship caused by dwindling numbers of fish that his family sells, he goes to work on a cassava plantation run by a Chinese corporation.

Khieu Mok, a young woman from another farming family, has to go to the capital city of Phnomh Penh to work all day for very little income in a garment factory because of her mother's debts. Neither Sari nor Khieu find enough money in their new jobs to really make a difference to their families' financial security.

Image: Sari Math, a 15-year-old boy forced to work at a cassava plantation because of the dwindling numbers of fish being caught by his family.

Both Sari Math and Khieu Mok end up working for the very system that's affecting their families' livelihoods. Both find that this system has no interest in adequately compensating those that form its foundation of cheap international labour – labour driven to such work because their land is being taken away and permanently altered in the name of 'progress.'

Their stories are moving and captivating even without any political baggage attached, but the ramifications of their struggles makes their problems even more touching, and disturbing.

"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," says Sav Samourn in one scene, after explaining how loggers and corporations simply deforest wide swathes of land, and plant industrial crops that cannot sustain the life of the ecosystems they're taking over (the huge Chinese cassava plantation that Sari Math works in being just one example). In contrast, farmers burn parts of the forest so the soil is fertile enough to re-grow crops the next year.

Sav Samourn mentions that they were once afraid of ghosts and bears in the forest, but are now only afraid of "people," the people who are deforesting their home, the people their neighbours are selling their land to. Wildlife and ghosts are long gone in the cleared acres of land now surrounding their home, and soon, the local communities will be gone too. As she says, hauntingly: "We can't win."

There's a telling moment when Kieu, despite her unforgiving, spare life working in the bleak garment factory and living in overcrowded dormitories with other rural refugees in Phnomh Penh, says that she hopes urbanization eventually transforms the farmland that is her home, so that she can see city lights shining everywhere, and have roads and shops instead of the constant, backbreaking labour of farm work that is, year by year, yielding less money and less food.

Image: Khieu Mok, who tries to alleviate her mother's debt from poor crops by working for low wages in a garment factory in Phnomh Penh.

It's a surprising moment, since the more privileged audiences of A River Changes Course will want her to stay true to her and her family's vanishing way of life, to perhaps assuage their own guilt. But she's only just seeing the allure of globalized living, the convenience and ease that those on the other side of the financial and class divide have long settled into. In an interview for NPR, Mam said that she thinks Kieu "represents all of us."

"I think all of us are living in a deep well, where we don't really understand the consequences of our actions. We may understand what would happen if a factory came to her village, but we may not fully comprehend what could happen if we continue to drive every day – you know, if the whole planet is covered with cars and we continue to be dependent on fuel and oil and so forth," said Mam.

Mam isn't blaming Kieu or the audience, just recognizing that we're too deeply dependent on the system to upend it. "My stories – your stories – are embedded in their stories," as Mam told her audience after the VIFF screening.

It's Mam's intention to drive home the fact that the plight of the Cambodians in the film is a universal one, because, for better and worse, globalized capitalism and its accompanying wave of modernization is all-encompassing and inescapable. Indeed, the ongoing conflict between indigenous First Nations and the Canadian oil industry (and government) over the exploitation of their lands for natural resources has many parallels to the Cambodian situation Mam is illuminating.

Image: Kalyanee Mam, director of A River Changes Course.

We can't get rid of the system. Which makes it all the more necessary to alter, to make it sustainable, to find compromise. Mam calls the mistreatment of those shoved under the march of progress in Cambodia an "atrocity" that "very few people comprehend," even comparing it to the devastation of the Khmer Rouge regime. Coming from Mam, who personally remembers escaping the Khmer Rouge as a child, with her father walking ahead into minefields to create a path for his family, these are strong words indeed.

But Mam wants her beautiful, moving portrayal of these families and their plight to act as "a vehicle of change," inspiring advocacy. The filmmakers are currently raising funds with the goal of screening A River Changes Course at "60 universities and villages across Cambodia in the next 12 months, and facilitate substantive dialogue in the most remote corners of the country. Through these screenings, Cambodians will be encouraged to analyze their current situation, and within their respective communities, determine how to respond to this rapid change."

Those interested in helping reach this goal can contribute here. For a more detailed explanation of Mam's reasons for making the film, and what she hopes it will achieve, read her director's statement.

"This is a decisive moment for Cambodia. And so it is also a decisive moment for the world. How do we find balance? How do we advance and develop without destroying ourselves in the process? By delving deeply into the lives of families directly affected by development and globalization, I hope this film, A River Changes Course, will invite viewers not to draw simple conclusions, but to ask questions that demand thoughtful answers and action."

Kalyanee Mam

Images courtesy of A River Changes Course official website.
 

 

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