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Cambodian documentary makes Sundance Film Festival

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Stills from the movie A River Changes Course, which is to be shown at the Sundance Film Festival. Photograph: Kalyanee Mam

Until the arrival of large-scale development around her home in the northeastern province of Ratanakkiri, Sav Samourn, a member of the ethnic Jarai minority, was frightened of wild animals and ghosts.

But as trees disappeared and industrial machinery razed the forestland, the old fears fell away. People scare her now.

Samourn’s tale of loss and struggle, in the face of a country that is changing at warp speed, is one of three narratives weaving through filmmaker Kalyanee Mam’s new documentary, A River Changes Course, which will have its world premiere in January at the elite US-based Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.

“Today, thousands of families across Cambodia have been thrown off their land or evicted from their homes,” Mam said in an e-mail interview.

“Vast swathes of forests have been cut down and shipped abroad, and immense fields of rubber, sugar, soy, and cassava plantations are rising from the ashes of burnt forest.”

The work is one among 12 in the World Cinema Documentary Competition, in which films from Egypt, Russia, India, Ireland and China, among others, fill the list.

A River Changes Course, which was produced by the Documentation Center of Cambodia, is in Khmer and Jarai, with English subtitles.

A Cambodian-American who did the cinematography for the Academy Award-winning film Inside Job, which takes a deep investigative dive into the global financial crisis, Mam addresses one of the central issues affecting the country, land rights, with an up-close approach.   

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“The film unfolds in an intimate, verité style, allowing the stories to unravel rhythmically, with art and poetry, but also methodically, to reveal an even deeper story,” Mam said.

A River Changes Course avoids slamming the government, and Mam said that the team kept authorities apprised of their work. But that doesn’t detract from the comprehensiveness of the telling.

The camera presents ecological destruction by following Sari Math, a teenage fisherman whose catches grow smaller and smaller.

And the story of Khieu Mok, who left the rice fields for the garment factories of Phnom Penh to help pay down debt, illustrates the bittersweet pull that work in the labour industry has on families.

Though the three Cambodians in the film tell personal histories, by the end, they’ve evoked the universal theme of the have and have nots.

And though the film may not be overtly political, environmental or investigative, Mam hopes that the sense of urgency it creates will “call the international and local community to action”.

To contact the reporter on this story: Joe Freeman at joseph.freeman@phnompenhpost.com

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