By Sarah Zinn
If a film crew followed three young Americans and observed their lives, they would capture a lot of footage of malls, classrooms and bedrooms stocked with electronic devices. And they may even call it Reality TV. However, in A River Changes Course, award-winning filmmaker Kalyanee Mam returns to her homeland to capture the stories of three young Cambodians struggling to maintain their traditional way of life and found that their reality is profoundly different ““ not a single material thing to fret over, but food, shelter and the health of their crops. The livelihood of the families of these youngsters relies on the land, which is being threatened by the roaring pressures of modernization.
Sav Samourn can only sit and watch as the jungle she’s always known is slowly stripped away. The same jungle that has helped provide food, water, and game for her family is now being decimated in the wake of corporate expansion. She struggles to find any room for her livestock and can feel her home shrinking.
Mam’s film crew captures Samourn’s family as she guides her children in skills needed for survival in the jungle–gathering water and digging for natural potatoes— a heartwarming interaction reminiscent of an earlier time when families all worked together to support each other.
In a fishing hamlet, Sari Math, a young boy, spends his days learning how to fish from his father as the two venture out on the river in a small wooden boat. His father also teaches him what tastes good with fish as they fry their catch on a makeshift stove using a rock and flame. The elements of their day-to-day lives are strikingly different from those in a developed country.
Sari is eventually forced to quit school to help support his family; most of the children at the day school end up quitting and are lucky to study until grade seven. Even when he gives up his education, the fishing yield is quite low that year and the family continues to struggle.
In a nearby village, the generational passage of knowledge has proved obsolete. Khieu Mok, a young woman, leaves her village and family in hopes of making more money in factories in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh. However, she finds that city life does not provide what she expected, and misses her family greatly.
There are unmistakable similarities between the struggles and daily lives of the families of these three young Cambodians and ordinary families in developed countries — a reality that makes this film so raw and touching. Despite differences in ways of life, there are human similarities that resonate with everyone. It asserts the idea that perhaps modernization is not always progress, and maybe no way of life is better than the other.
In Cambodia, the river of life flows in a perpetual cycle of death and destruction. Water is the source of all life. And the Tonle Sap River, which changes course twice a year and is home to one of the most diverse bodies of freshwater in the world, is the beating heart that gives life and sustenance to the people of Cambodia. Kbang Tik Tonle, the film’s original Khmer title, is a term that describes the traditional practice of dipping one’s hands into the water and drinking the water with both hands. This single act connects the Cambodian people to the water, to nature, and ultimately to life.
The river of life, the beating heart that has sustained us for so long is now changing course. And so the lives that depend on this river and the rich land surrounding it are changing as well. - Kalyanee Mam
ABOUT THE WRITER
Sarah Zinn is currently a student at Indiana University studying Journalism. She’s a creative, passionate writer with a compulsion for wit. In her free time, she enjoys venturing outdoors, eating ethnic food, painting and on the rare occasion, sleeping. She is very interested in civil rights, the environment, public policy, and the arts. She has a curiosity for most things, excluding only finite math and stressfully dramatic shows such as CSI and 90210. She is a diehard fan of Seinfeld and most girl bands of the indie rock persuasion. The daughter of an expat, Sarah has called the state of Indiana, Athens GR, and London England home within the 19 years of her life. Sarah writes for her university’s newspaper the Indiana Daily Student, and has been published in Indianapolis Monthly Magazine. Follow her on Twitter @sarah_zinn.