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A river changes course: a film by Kalyanee Mam

By: Yvet Berendsen

“Today,” remarks Sav Samourn, “everyone needs land.” Winner of the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize: Documentary at Sundance, A River Changes Course tells the story of three families living in contemporary Cambodia as they face hard choices forced by rapid development and struggle to maintain their traditional ways of life as the modern world closes in around them.
In the deep jungles of Cambodia, Sav Samourn and her family depend on the forests for their food and livelihood. But with the encroachment of large companies and the slashing and clearing of forests, Sav Samourn soon discovers there is no room for wild animals and ghosts in the forests she calls home. In a fishing village on the Tonle Sap River, Sari Math is forced to quit school and

A river changes course

support his family. But as the fish catch steadily dwindles, Sari and his family realize their lives as fishermen are changing forever.

In a small village outside of Phnom Penh, Khieu Mok must leave and find work in a garment factory to support her familyʼs mounting debt. But life in the city proves no better and Khieu finds herself torn between her obligations to send money home and her duty to be at home with her family.
From a remote northern jungle, down along the Tonle Sap, to the rice fields in the countryʼs center and the pulsing heart of urban Phnom Penh, the radical changes in Cambodia today are transforming not only the countryʼs landscape – but also the dreams of its people.
Director’s statement
My first trip to Cambodia was in 1998, only seventeen years after my family fled this war-torn country. I was shocked by much of what I saw – the poverty, desperation, and corruption tha plagued the country. But I was also deeply affected by the beauty that surrounded me – the beauty of the landscape, the people, the ancient culture, and the many smiles that greeted me in my journey.
Over a decade later, globalization has transformed the Cambodian landscape. Dirt roads have been replaced with highways and high rise department stores clog the city. The small streets of Phnom Penh bulge with traffic, the oversized SUVs incongruent to the narrow boulevards, its factories overfilled with young women making jeans and shirts for designer labels in the United States.
In the global race for low-wage workers and natural resources, Cambodia has transformed its ancient agrarian culture to compete for international investment.
I made this film to document the human cost of this transformation. And to put a human face on the beautiful traditional livelihoods that may soon be lost to the world forever. With our camera equipment and supplies, Cambodian Producer, Ratanak Leng and

Cambodian house

traveled to three distinct parts of Cambodia – to the remote jungles of Ratannakiri in the Northeast, the floating villages of Kampong Chhnang in Central Cambodia, and the countryside of Svay Rieng just outside the capital city of Phnom Penh, to live with and document the lives of three young Cambodians and their families.

Sav Samourin – The remote jungles in Northeast Cambodia

In the Northeast, we hired and packed nine motorcycles with our equipment, food, water, and a small generator to provide power for uploading footage onto our hard drives. We placed the motorcycles on boats, crossed a tributary of the Mekong River, and climbed
nine mountains to reach Sav Samourn and her family living in the deep jungles. There, we trekked through thick forests, bathed in the local spring, and slept in a small hut where the family stored their rice grains and chickens. Our mornings began at 4, when the cocks crowed and the light was still cool and soft. We bathed in the stream in the afternoon and began preparing for bed around 7, when only the light of the stars shone in the sky.
Sav Samourn is Jarai, one of 24 indigenous groups with a distinct language and culture living in Cambodia today and dependant solely on the land and forests for their food and livelihood. Sav Samourn and her family have no access to electricity, markets, or even education. Our visit was the first time she and her family had ever seen a camera, let alone one that captured moving pictures. The film opens with one of Sav Samourn’s daughters, Cha, chopping sugar cane. I remember vividly the day we captured this scene. We

Cambodian girl

followed Cha down a steep hill into a wooded area enclosed by forests of banana trees and sugar cane. As this little girl grasped the sugar cane in her hand and began chopping, I was mesmerized. I had never in my life seen an eight years old child so strong, adept, and precise. As she chopped, she stared once into the eyes of the camera, and I knew she was neither looking at me, nor at the camera. She was peering into the souls of all of us. Life for Sav Samourn and her family is changing rapidly. Although she may not be able to grasp the global realities behind this change, I know she can feel the immediate and intense impact.

The first time I interviewed Sav Samourn, she was seated in a small hut surrounded by golden rice fields with the jungles rising behind us, just beyond. The rain was a misty haze and one of her daughters, Yun, was plucking silver strands from her head. It was the first time it had rained in months and Sav Samourn knew the harvest would not be good that year. I asked her why it had been so dry. She said the elders blame the dry spell on all the forests that have been cut down.
Khieu Mok – The countryside and the capital city of Phnom Penh

Khieu’s story was probably the most challenging story to tell as her life moved back and forth between the countryside and the city. I remember the first evening I was introduced to Khieu and her two sisters, one brother, and one brother-in-law, all five of them living in a small dormitory the size of a walk-in closet. Khieu was working in a shoe factory at the time. She had been working in the same shoe factory for over five years and was beginning to experience pain in her chest and problems with her digestive system. She told me the factory lacked ventilation and she was given no mask to wear to protect her from the noxious fumes. Only a few weeks after I began filming her in her dormitory, Khieu decided she would return home to recover from her illness. Khieu is one of eight children, with a single mother forced to raise her children on her own. Khieu’s mother left her husband who abused her, and unusual for a Cambodian woman living in the countryside, took her husband to court, legally divorced him, and demanded her rights to their

Cambodian poverty

property. But Khieu’s mother still got very little from the settlement. They had to start from scratch and buy new land and build a new home. And so, Khieu and her family found themselves in debt. Khieu remained at home in the countryside for six months before she finally decided to return to the city and find work in a garment factory. She had become restless in the country. There was nothing to do at home, no market to shop in, no electricity, no lights, and no television to watch. Debt was also weighing heavily on the family and Khieu needed to find work to support her young brothers’ education. Khieu eventually leaves for the city only to return home again when her mother complains of the hard work she must endure alone at home.

At first, I was frustrated with Khieu’s story, shuffling back and forth between the country and the city, with plans always indefinite. But Khieu’s indecisiveness is not unique. It represents the lives of all factory workers who are torn between their lives and families at home and fresh opportunities to work in the city. This indecisiveness explains Khieu’s longing to have the city come to her village. If a factory could be built in her village life would be perfect, she says. She would never have to leave her mother, her family, or her village to find work in the city. And once the factories were built, of course there would be roads, markets, and most important of
all, electricity. Khieu’s statement was expressed from the heart and encapsulates the complexity and challenges of development in Cambodia and all over the world. We all seek to better our lives with opportunities and technology. However, in the process of improving our lives, we must also ask ourselves, how do we impact our own lives, the lives of others, our environment, and ultimately, the world that we live in?
At the core, the stories of Khieu, Sari, and Sav Samourn reflect the relevant issues facing all of us today. It is the environmental story of deforestation, overfishing, biodiversity, and conservation. It is the human story of development, migration, globalization, and overwhelming debt. But most importantly, it is the universal story of struggle, survival, love, family, and hope. Khieu, Sari, and Sav Samourn impressed me most with their strength and conviction to determine their own destiny and future. One of my most treasure

Cambodian life

clips from the film is at the end when Sav Samourn puts on her hat and gazes into the future with a look of fierceness and determination. The companies may come, the forests may be cut down, but her life and the lives of her children will always endure. It is this tenacity, the same tenacity that ensured the survival of so many families during the Khmer Rouge period, including my own, that gives me hope for Cambodia’s future. This is a decisive moment for Cambodia. And so it is also a decisive moment for the world.

Cambodia: a violent past
From 1975 – 1979, the Khmer Rouge Regime, led by Pol Pot, evacuated the urban centers and forced the entire population to work on rural work projects. The Khmer Rouge took the lives of nearly 2 million people. The woman pictured above was visiting Tuol Sleng, an infamous torture center, for the first time when she accidentally came upon a photo of her long-lost brother. Thousands of Cambodians today are still longing for their loved ones and recovering from the psychological scars of that period. (Source:

Cambodia has a population of 14.3 million people. In 2011, Cambodiaʼs GDP quadrupled, increasing from $216 per capita in 1992 to $909 per capita in 2011. From 1994 to 2011, Cambodia experienced an average growth rate of 7.7 percent. Although the rate of poverty continues to decline inCambodia, rural poverty remains obstinately high at 40 per cent. Eighty-five per cent of the population is in the informal economy, mostly in agriculture, forestry, and fishing and in small and micro-enterprises. The form

Cambodian poverty

sectors of garments and tourism are the main engines of growth, with garment manufacturing accounting for 85 per cent of Cambodiaʼs exports and employing some 350,000 workers, mostly women. (Source: UNDP-Cambodia and

Garment factories
The garment industry continues to be a large contributor of exports and employment for Cambodiaʼs economy. It represents approximately 90% of total export value and employs over 300,000 workers. 90% are woman. A garment factory workers makes on average 61 USD a month and 100 USD a month if she works over time. (Source:
Migrant workers

The Cambodian economy is predominantly agrarian, with agriculture employing 73 percent of its population (Asian Migrant Centre, 2002). Chronic poverty, landlessness, and natural disasters such as droughts and floods are compelling many rural Cambodians to migrate to other rural areas, the urban areas or neighbouring countries to seek work. Other push factors include debts payments and a lack of viable livelihood options. The pull factors are the high demand for less skilled labourers in 3D jobs (dangerous, demanding, dirty) in countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, South Korea and Saudi Arabia, the prospect of paid employment and a
better life. (Source:
“Today,” remarks Sav Samourn, “everyone needs land.”

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