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A River Changes Course at the Yale Environmental Film Festival: Interview With Filmmaker Kalyanee Mam

04/15/2013 11:58 am ET | Updated Jun 15, 2013

Every year, millions of rural farmers, fishermen, and forest dwellers pack up their belongings and relocate from villages to cities. A century ago, just 10 percent of the world's population lived in urban areas; today, more than half does. And while plenty of these migrants move eagerly, many are dislodged by deforestation, overfishing, climate change, and other forms of environmental destruction.

A River Changes Course, a documentary shown this week at the Environmental Film Festival at Yale (EFFY), puts a human face to these global changes. River follows three Cambodian families -- one living in a floating hut on the Tonlé Sap River, one dwelling deep in the jungle, and one whose eldest daughter moves to Phnom Penh to work in a garment factory -- as their world is transformed by forces far beyond than their power to control, or even understand. Although demolished trees provide the film its unsettling backdrop, its real focus is the three families, and the meditative rhythm of their lives: hands rooting for potatoes, scythes mowing through swathes of cane, fish cleavers thumping against chopping blocks. Over the film's course, however, these rhythms slowly break, disrupted by the migration of children whose homes no longer hold opportunity.

River, which recently won the Grand Jury Prize for world cinema documentary at the Sundance Film Festival, is the creation of filmmaker Kalyanee Mam. Mam, 36, was born in Cambodia during the reign of the Khmer Rouge; in 1979, her family fled to a refugee camp on the Thai border before making their way to California. Although her background is in law, Mam is today a filmmaker with an impressive and growing oeuvre, which includes the 2010 film Inside Job, a documentary about the banking hijinks that produced the global financial crisis.

I caught up with Mam on the fourth day of the festival to talk about apolitical activism, the responsibilities of filmmakers, and the similarities between rural Cambodians and folks on Main Street, USA.

BG: I was struck by how little political or historical context the film provided. Instead of explaining why the environmental destruction is happening, or who's inflicting it, you present it through your subjects' eyes, without narration. Can you talk about that decision?

KM: My approach to documentary filmmaking has been to tell the human story rather than to tell a political one. I consider myself an advocate for social issues, but I'm not a political person -- I don't take sides on issues. To me, filmmaking isn't about finding solutions -- it's about asking the right questions, and trying to better understand situations. For me, the best way to do that is to explore the lives of people, and allow them to tell their own stories. The experts for me are the people themselves, rather than the scientists or the companies or the government.

BG: That lack of context also gives the film a universal quality -- yes, it's clearly about Cambodia, but the urban migration you depict is happening in thousands of communities, all over the world.

KM: Absolutely. People everywhere are trying to navigate the world and find balance in their lives in the face of destruction and globalization and development. My purpose has always been to understand the stories of people whose stories might not otherwise be told. For me, that's more important than showing the bigger picture. But I think that when you tell human stories, the bigger picture and the politics reveal themselves too. At the end of the film, when Sav Samour talks about the companies coming in and taking their lands away, that's a political statement. She's talking about devastation, the forests being cut down, the tigers, the bears, and the elephants that no longer roam the jungles. To me, that's pretty political.

BG: The film makes it clear that everyone in Cambodia is touched by global capitalism. But for those Cambodians who are so remote that they hadn't even seen a camera before they met you, how do they understand the significance of, say, a multinational timber company? What does global capitalism mean to someone who's not deeply embedded in it?

KM: Many people in Cambodia don't have access to paper or films, and they don't understand the bigger picture of what's happening to their country. The purpose of the film is to bring all these different situations -- what's happening in the forest, what's happening on the lake, what's happening in the factories -- into one large picture, and to share that picture with Cambodia and the world.

When people in Cambodia view this film, it's often their first opportunity to travel to different parts of the country. The people who live on the lake have never seen the people in the jungle before. The people in the jungle have never seen people working in a factory before. So this is really their first opportunity to see their country -- how beautiful it is, how precious it is, and how important it is to preserve and protect that beauty.

BG: What was the reaction of the people in the film when they finally saw themselves on screen?

KM: We had a screening in Cambodia for the premiere of the film. There were 600 people at the screening, and 200 of them were parents of garment factory workers. For many of those parents, it was the first time they'd ever seen inside the factories where their daughters work.

A young woman in the audience stood up, and she was Cham Muslim, like the boy Sari in the film. There are 200,000 Cham Muslims in Cambodia -- they're both an ethnic and a religious minority. The fact that she stood up to speak to an audience of 600 people, as a woman, was already astounding. But it was even more remarkable that she was Cham Muslim and speaking out. She said that growing up, she had always felt ostracized -- she'd never felt like she belonged in Cambodia. And she said that now, for the first time in her life, she felt like she was part of a community. She felt like a Cambodian. And that's incredible, that people in Cambodia are feeling inspired in this way. This film is about them, it's about their country, and it's about their identity as Cambodians.

Many films made about Cambodia have been about the Khmer Rouge period -- for most people, that's all they know about Cambodia. But this film talks about the beauty of Cambodia, not just the destruction. Which just reinforces how terrible the destruction is.

BG: That's why it's so interesting to hear you talk about deliberately making an apolitical film -- because Cambodia is a country with such a fraught and well-documented political history.

KM: Our lives are not political. In the film, Khieu [who works in a garment factory], says this: "I wake up every morning and go to work, I sleep, I eat, I come home from work, and then I wake up and do it all over again." When I hear that, I think: we can all relate to that.

The struggle that she's going through is the struggle that we're all going through here in the United States. In the film, they talk about rising food prices, they talk about the difficulty of working in a factory, about being in debt. Here in the U.S., people are struggling against the rising cost of living, they're struggling against the rising cost of health care, the rising cost of education, all the basic necessities for a life of dignity. We're going through the same things that Sari and Khieu and Sav Samour are going through in their lives, too.

BG: A River Changes Course is an appropriate sequel to Inside Job in that it depicts crimes of capitalism, albeit in a very different setting than Wall Street. Can you talk about some of the parallels you see between the two films?

KM: I think there are parallels in all of the films I've made. My first film [Between Earth & Sky] was about Iraqi refugees fleeing their country. They were victims of capitalism too, in a way. Inside Job was about the consequences of the financial crisis, which came about because of a screw-up in the capitalist system.

But I'm not an anti-capitalist advocate. What I want to ultimately express is that whatever we do, whatever policies we implement, we always need to consider the consequences of our policies. In this film, the government and corporations are trying to exploit opportunities to build factories, to cut down forests, to fish in the lakes and rivers, and even to export sand from Cambodia to Singapore. They're chipping away at Cambodia, with grave environmental consequences to the country. But they don't care about those consequences, because they just want to exploit the opportunity.

BG: A lot of environmental documentaries end with straightforward, actionable takeaways for the audience -- just eat grass-fed beef from now on, or put a solar panel on your roof, and everything will be okay. But this is a movie that indicts an entire global system, one that we're all part of and may not be able to escape. Having seen the movie, what can the audience do to not be complicit in the destruction it depicts?

KM: As a filmmaker, I feel like my role is to make people aware of what's happening, but I think that the responsibility of action falls on organizations. I intend to connect people to organizations that are working on the ground, fighting land-grabbing and deforestation in Cambodia. We're already partnered with the Documentation Center of Cambodia, but there are so many other organizations across Cambodia who are fighting these things.

If you watched the film and were inspired enough to go to Cambodia, that would be amazing. But if you watched the film and you're inspired to think of yourself and your life and the people around you in a different way, that's amazing too. One of the things I found most touching about the film were the relationships, and how loving and supporting they are toward each other. In the United States, you'd never find a 14-year-old boy talking about how he wants to work and support his family. You'd never find a little girl chopping fish heads and supporting her family with those wages. And I'm not saying that child labor is good, obviously. But at the same time, the idea of love, the idea of community, the idea of family, is just so intimate. I think we have a lot to learn from other societies about compassion and selflessness.

BG: Were you ever tempted to intervene in people's lives more than you did? When Khieu's mother is 22 cents short on her debt, for example, didn't you feel the desire to help?

KM: One of the most difficult moments for me came at the end, when Sari told me he didn't want to study. When I met him, he was 14 years old, and I thought, "I'm gonna film him, and at the end he's gonna go to school, he's gonna have an education, he's gonna do exactly what he wants to do -- or what I want him to do." But no: It didn't work out that way. I gave him the opportunity to go to school, but he didn't want to. Right now he's learning Korean, and he's going to go work in a factory in South Korea. At first, I felt deep disappointment. But then I realized that I can't be disappointed, because this is not my life. This is his life, and it's his responsibility to do what he thinks is right for himself.