A River Changes Course is one of the featured films being shown at the Art Theatre on Saturday, September 14, as part of the two day Cambodia Town Film Festival. Part of the diaspora that fled Cambodia after the collapse of the Khmer Rouge regime, the film’s director Kalyanee Mam moved with her family to Stockton, CA at the age of six.
“I had a wonderful childhood, surrounded by a warm and loving family and parents who always instilled in us the importance of education, but also the importance of maintaining our cultures and traditions. I think it was a tough balancing act for my parents, raising seven children in the U.S.–balancing the need to fit in and assimilate with the current American culture with the need also to maintain the life they once knew in Cambodia. So we grew up speaking our native tongue and eating Khmer food at home, but also excelling at school. I feel indebted to my parents for forcing us to speak our native language at home. Without that, I wouldn’t have been able to make this film.
“I was too young to be nostalgic about Cambodia. My only memory was playing in mud and rain in the refugee camps. However, I grew up with a strong sence of history, instilled by my parents, who often recounted stories of their life in Cambodia as well as the tragic stories of the Khmer Rouge period. I grew up intrigued by Cambodia and always wanting to learn more about my native country. “It was really a strong sense to become whole again that took me to Cambodia the first time. Growing up in the U.S., I never felt like I belonged. I had this split identity. I was neither Cambodian nor American. It was always a struggle for me to identify myself. But when I arrived in Cambodia, I realized I was not Cambodian either. Over the years, and through my travels and experiences, I’ve learned to accept not the split identity, but a more complex identity of who I am, which is an aggregation of all my life experiences and the friends and communities that I am a part of, and not my ethnic or national identity.
“My first trip to Cambodia was in 1998, during the summer of my junior year at Yale. I was there to conduct research for my senior thesis on the Endurance of the Cambodian Family Under the Khmer Rouge Regime. I was working with the Documentation Center of Cambodia and, with their help, traveled all throughout the country. We even flew to Ratannakiri which, at that time, had no accessible roads, but was completely filled with forest.
“I discovered a beautiful place that exceeded any of my expectations. I had never seen any other country like it–the golden rice fields, the lush jungles, and winding rivers, and the people–so gentle, kind, and despite everything they have been through and suffered, still open to the world. That was a shock to me, coming from the US where people complain of the slightest discomfort.
“Since that trip, I grew to love Cambodia and continued to travel back and forth. I even lived in Cambodia for a year after graduation, working on a fellowship paper on Crimes Committed Against Women During the Khmer Rouge Regime. But it was in 2008 that I recognized how much Cambodia had changed. Where once were remote jungles, are now paved with roads and littered with fields of rubber, cassava, and sugar cane.
“The Tonle Sap River, once one of the most diverse bodies of freshwater in the world, is now being fished to extinction. And the golden ricefields in the villages, once tended by families, are now tended only by old women, too old to work in the booming garment factories in Phnom Penh. I wondered how all these changes were impacting the country but more specifically, people’s lives and the cultural fabric that weaves communities and ties Cambodian families together.
“The people I found in A River Changes Course–Sari Math, Sav Samourn, and Khieu Mok and their families–welcomed me to their homes and opened their lives to me. No matter how little they had, they gave everything of themselves to me and to one another. There is a very strong theme of sacrifice that resonates throughout the film. No one is working only for themselves. Even the smallest child works to help provide for the family.
“At the beginning of the film, there is a shocking image of a young child cutting sugar cane with a machete. You would never find this here in the U.S. Of course, I’m not advocating the use of machetes by children, but this image reveals that every person, even the smallest child, feels a sense of responsibility for their families.”
Mam hesitates to place the blame for this seemingly relentless push for economic growth on the rapacious maw of Western consuption.
“I don’t think it’s that simple. I think we are all at the mercy of a global economic system that focuses too much on profit and not on the dignity of human lives and the natural beauty and necessity of a healthy environment. We all need to reconsider what our priorities are in order to protect what is most important – nature and people.”
Mam, a lawyer, has received no formal training as a filmmaker, but her work led her to participate in some significant documentary films.
“It was while working in Iraq, and becoming impassioned by the plight of the Iraqi people, some of whom were my colleagues, that I became inspired to make a documentary film about Iraqi refugees. Regardless of whether I had the technical expertise to do it or not, I felt that film was the most efficient way to get the message across to as many people as possible. And I wanted people to know about what was happening to Iraqi refugees at that time.
“After that, Charles Ferguson asked me to work with him on Inside Job, a film about the global financial crisis, another important and timely topic in 2008. But after my visit to Cambodia in 2008 I knew, in my gut, that I couldn’t leave the country again without doing something.
“When people think of Cambodia, they usually think of Angkor Wat or the Khmer Rouge, but few people are aware of the atrocities taking place in Cambodia right now. Few people know that thousands of families are being thrown off their land or evicted from their homes. Thousands of hectares of forests are being cut down and shipped abroad. The Tonle Sap, the lifeblood for the Cambodian people, is being fished to extinction. 90% of the over 300,000 garment factory workers in Phnom Penh are women and are only currently being paid $80 USD a month. I knew I wanted to inform people of this, and also to tell a story of the Cambodian struggle today.
“The government of Cambodia has full control over what companies are permitted access to various land and fishing concessions in Cambodia. Many of the concessions are given without regard to how they will impact people’s lives, their livelihood, and the environment in which they live.
“Sav Samourn belongs to one of 23 indigenous groups in Cambodia who are the most affected by land concessions given to large companies to tear down forests and plant large industrial agricultural crops like rubber, cassava, and sugar cane. Companies are already encroaching upon her land. Once they come, she’s not certain where she and her family will go. Large fishing concessions granted to companies, and dam construction upstream along the Mekong River, are also affecting the lives of fishermen like Sari Math and his family. As the fish supply in the Tonle Sap Lake dwindles, Sari and his family must find other ways to make ends meet.
“The people’s voices must be heard, but their voices must be heard in unity and with strength and with force. The people I have the most faith in right now in Cambodia are the youth, who are connected to technology, social media, and modern conceptions of justice and democracy. They are the ones we must empower to gain consciousness and make their voices heard.
“This is why we made this film, and are planning to screen the it in villages and universities all across the country–to help spread awareness about what is happening in Cambodia amongst the people as well as the government. And to encourage dialogue and discussion about how we can change Cambodia’s future. It may take some time–perhaps another five years–in time for Cambodia’s sixth national elections. But the change will come through a change in collective consciousness, and that is change that will endure.
“People are already rising up and speaking out. This last election proved that people want change to happen. When I spoke with Khieu Mok, the factory worker in the film, about her hopes for Cambodia’s future just before she cast her vote in the elections, she said that all she wanted was a raise in her wages. Because of the rise in food prices and the high cost of living, she can no longer afford to work in the factory for 80 USD a month. Cambodians are concerned about their livelihood and just trying to make ends meet. When people are most concerned with how they can put rice on the table and provide for their families, that’s when we know that the tipping point is very near.
“The government must be made aware of the social and environmental consequences of their actions. They must understand that thousands of families are affected by the clearing of forests and the removal of families from their farmland and their homes. They must also understand the impact dam construction will have on villages and communities that depend on fishing for their livelihood. They must also understand that the current wages are just not enough for families to survive.
“This is a global phenomenon. What is happening in Cambodia is happening all over the world, and even in the United States, where most people are just struggling to pay off their mortgages and afford healthcare and education for their children. I believe we are at a global tipping point, where we must ask ourselves whether the global financial system we currently live under right now is benefitting all of us, or just a few – the very top 1%?
“I think it’s very easy to be overwhelmed by everything that is happening to our planet right now. To be honest, I feel completely overwhelmed and, sometimes, just want to raise my hands and give up. But what keeps me going are all the people I’ve connected with in my life, who are struggling and fighting in small ways to make this world a beautiful place. That’s all we can do as individuals: Find what we are passionate about and fight for the things we believe in. Travel, read, volunteer, do something different to open our minds to a different perspective and different way of looking at the world. The only way change can happen is if we can embrace a new way of doing things that will benefit not just us, but everyone.”