In A River Changes Course, Khmer-American filmmaker Kalyanee Mam shows with spectacular imagery and intimate real-life characters how the Kingdom is changing with the tide of rapid development. This week she returns to Cambodia in the immediate lead-up to the election, still hoping the film’s impact will make voters think about the country’s bigger picture.
Few views are as sweepingly emotive as the descending landscape of home from the bird's-eye-view of an airplane. When Kalyanee Mam returned to Cambodia in 1998 as a 21-year-old, it was her first time back in the country since fleeing to the United States with her family as a child. The beauty of the landscape ‘floored’ her.
When she next visited, 10 years had gone by and the view from the plane was rather different. Mam too had changed, she had a law degree and was working as a history undergrad with Yale University’s Cambodian genocide program.
Travelling and interviewing villagers with the program’s Documentation Centre of Cambodia (DC-Cam), she began to hear first-hand the new problems faced by survivors of the Khmer Rouge: of stolen land, environmental destruction and the economic toll of rapid agro-industrialisation on farmers.
This year the 36-year-old’s documentary film A River Changes Course, a rich and stunningly shot portrait of three Cambodians whose lives are irrevocably changing as a consequence of development, won the Sundance Film Festival’s World Cinema Grand Jury Prize. This election eve, the first-time director is returning to the Kingdom to host screenings of her film to universities and villages, in the hope of fostering discussion around Cambodia’s future into the minds of voters.
“I think that people are talking about specific things [in the election] like deforestation — a lot of NGOs are fighting the land grabbing, and a lot of human rights organisations are helping to open the discussion about … the issues presented in the film.
“But the conversation is larger than that. It’s not just about land rights or deforestation or overfishing or factory workers’ rights; it’s about the future of the country and what we want for our children. What we should want is a country where people have dignity and connection to their land, people are able to live a dignified life. That’s what the movie is about.”
Like the airborne view that welcomed Mam on her first trip home, the film offers a striking perspective on Cambodia’s environmental crossroads. From the emerald forests of Ratanakkiri, where Jarai woman Sav Samourn witnesses the slashing and clearing of her homeland, to young Cham fisherman Sari Math gliding through the increasingly fruitless, lapping waters of the Tonle Sap. And Khieu Mok, who is forced to leave the rice fields of Svey Rieng for the workfloors of Phnom Penh’s garment factories, when her mother runs into debt.
For Mam — who, even over the skittish lines of Skype is an effusive and engaging interview — the leap from lawyer to DC-Cam researcher of the Khmer Rouge, cinematographer and finally director, was not as giant as it sounds.
She regards herself as a storyteller first and foremost — and all of those professions, she notes, rely on the ability to draw the strands of an experience together.
“[With filmmaking] I just picked up a camera. I was a lawyer before this and I never imagined myself as a filmmaker, even now I don’t consider myself a filmmaker. I really consider myself a storyteller. Even as a lawyer I was a storyteller — I was taking down people’s stories and helping them interpret those stories so that I could assist them.”
Telling a client you considered yourself more a storyteller than a lawyer — that couldn’t have inspired much confidence?
“We’re all here to tell stories — even as a teacher, we’re always processing stories to better serve the people we want to help.”
Mam’s screen storytelling prowess, was first on display in two documentaries made in the wake of two catastrophic events absorbing the US: the Iraq War and the recent Wall Street financial crisis.
She co-directed the 2009 short documentary Between Earth and Sky, following young Iraqi refugee artists in their host countries. Then, on her first film as cinematographer she shot the lauded Inside Job, exposing the culpability of the US banking industry in the 2008 financial crisis — it won an Academy Award.
Turning complex issues into compelling, award-winning stories are two pretty serious milestones but, says Mam, neither achievement met a particular ‘life purpose.’
“When I live life, it seems to be going in all these different directions, but when I put it down on paper it seems to make sense. I never planned to work on Inside Job. [Director Charles Ferguson] asked me and I agreed because it was an amazing opportunity. The thing I’m always interested is the topic that I feel is most important at the time. And the very first film I worked on was about Iraqi refugee and at that time Iraq was our focal point. It was the topic everyone was interested in and the one I felt was the most important at the time. The global financial crisis was looming large over all of us, all over the world. With A River Changes Course, it’s the environment and people’s rights.”
In her feature directorial debut, Mam’s lens is equally concerned with capturing the sumptuous natural beauty of the three provinces the film is shot in, as it is the emotional drama of her subjects’ journeys. The attention to detail adds to the story small, sublime moments that she hopes resonate with local film viewers when it is screened in a special program run in conjunction with DC-Cam in the coming weeks.
“When we screened the film in Koh Kong and in Siem Reap last year, I asked people to raise their hands and tell me if they’d ever been to Kampong Chnnang, or Rattanakkiri. No one raised their hand. Very few people living in different parts of the community have the opportunity to travel to different places in the country which also means they may not be aware that what is happening to them is also happening all over the country,” she says.
Rather than spur outrage or lay blame at politicians and corruption, the film aims to get people thinking about the bigger issue of Cambodia’s all-over industrial development, says the film’s executive producer Youk Chhang, of DC-Cam.
“The idea is to use the beauty [of the cinematography] to engage the public — Kalyanee is very talented at that. As we progressed, the story [which was originally focused on land issues] became A River Changes Course.
“[The film screenings] contributes to democratic society, where people can pose these questions. It may have some impact over their voting decisions.… They should also have their own initiative or solution. We hope people take ownership of the problem.”
For Mam, who lives in northern California and has a born love of the outdoors, the threat to Cambodia’s natural environment — all the traditional life that entails — is an issue that has not yet hit many of the Khmer-American diaspora. She hopes a screening of the film in the Khmer community of Long Beach will bring the message home.
“I love nature. Even where I live, I live near nature and I think maybe it’s because I’m Cambodian it’s in my blood.… If you were in Cambodia in 1998 and came back 10 years later you wouldn’t recognise many of the places. Where there were rice fields are now factories, where there were fish in the water, there’s a dwindling fish population. Where there’s running water there’s dams being built, where there’s forest there are rubber plantations and sugar.… I feel two years ago people were struggling to survive. Right now people are struggling to not only survive but maintain their dignity.”
Although Mam jokes that she ‘has no purpose’ — but rather lives to ‘learn and be open-minded and to explore and discover’ — a passionate urgency inflects her conversation about the film she lovingly promotes.
“When you work on the Khmer Rouge for a while, you burn out. It’s such a difficult topic and there’s only so much you can hear about death and execution. The psychological drain was one reason [to but the other was I felt that while we were talking about the past, so much is happening in the present.”