Sydney Film Festival Review: A River Changes Course (Cambodia/USA, 2013)

Every now and then a documentary film comes along that manages to transport you directly into the mind of the filmmakers. Their passion and dedication to their subjects becomes your passion and dedication. Not because it’s forced on you, but because the film handles its material so deftly that you can’t help but become an active participant in the journey. A River Changes Course is one of those films. It’s the second documentary from Khmer-American director, Kalyanee Mam, and it focuses on the effect that rapid modernisation is having on the gentle, traditional ways of life and family structure in contemporary Cambodia.

The film follows three young people and their families from three different communities in Cambodia. Sav Samourn is a young mother living with her husband and small children in the mountainous jungles of the north. In the centre of the country, Sari Math is a fisherman living with his parents and siblings in a floating community on the Tonle Sap River. And in the rural flatlands surrounding Phnom Penh, we meet Khieu, who lives and works among the rice fields with her financially and physically embattled mother.

Despite being separated by geography and lifestyle, the demands of Mam’s subjects are all simple: they strive for food, shelter and the health and wellbeing of their offspring. The film opens with three beautiful scenes that show how these lessons for survival are passed down through the generations: Sav Samourn shows her girls how to dig for potatoes in the steep mountainside; Sari Math fishes in a long boat with his father and Khieu harvests the rice fields with her mother, using the traditional method.

However, beyond the surface of these idyllic lifestyles, all is not as it seems. The looming presence of modern progress and international interests casts an ever-increasing shadow over these long-held ways of life. There is a faint sense of foreboding as Khieu and her mother watch on while a motorised rice mill makes light work of what once was a backbreaking task. Thus Mam gently ushers us towards the central dilemma of the film: What legacy, if any, is this current generation able to leave for the next, when Cambodia is changing so quickly and traditional life is under such threat?

The origins of the dilemma seem to be this: Increased development has lead to environmental destruction, which threatens the livelihood of rural communities. What once was lush jungle, teeming with life, is now smoking, barren wasteland after commercial deforestation. A flowing brown river that served as a life-blood has now been emptied of its fish. As debt builds and traditional sources of sustenance dry up, the younger generation is forced into the cities and onto corporate farming projects to earn crucial dollars for their families at home.

For Khieu, this means moving to the capital, Phnom Penh, to work in one of the vast multinational garment factories on the edge of the city. Sari Math goes west in search of Chinese-owned Casava plantations. Meanwhile, in the north, Sav Samourn can only bide her time until the inevitable knock on the door from big business signifies the sale and deforestation of her family’s land. Slowly but surely, these Cambodian families are being weaned off their traditional way of life and folded into the world of modern commerce. Even more heart wrenching is the fact that they are being broken up and isolated from each other in the process.

The power of this film lies in the telling of it. Kalyanee Mam’s style is impressively restrained. There is no narration, over and above a few titles to indicate location. The sound design is subtle and uses music very sparingly. With vivid colours and concise framing, you often get the sense that you are standing right next to the camera as the action unfolds. In this way, the subjects really do feel like they are telling their stories in their own words and on their own terms. Mam has obviously taken the time to develop close bonds with her subjects and as a result, the film is remarkably candid and often very intimate. Meanwhile the audience is right there with them, sharing their hardship.

It’s not so much the fact that Cambodia is modernising that seems to be the problem here. It is the fact that it is happening so quickly that these families are unable to prepare adequately in advance. There is the strong sense that their world is spinning beyond their control and that the only option is to try and grab a foothold in something to survive. Ironically, Khieu mentions that she is so busy trying to earn dollars now, that she has no time to think of the future, when it is the changing future ahead of her that is most at stake in this film.

A River Changes Course is a beautiful title for this poignant film, capturing the sense that, what once was certain, is now changing immeasurably and irreparably, and that there now seems to be no choice but to swim with the current in order to survive.


Get your tickets to the Sydney Film Festival Screenings now!‎

Screening Times
Sun 9 Jun 6:00PM - Dendy Opera Quays Cinema 2
Tue 11 Jun 10:00 AM - Event Cinemas George Street 4