“If you marry a city man you will be short of money,” claims a young Cambodian boy in Kalyanee Mam’s glacial documentary A River Changes Course (2013). He goes on to reveal that if you were to choose him, you will have dollars to spend on such things as a Lexus or a villa. Quite what good such a vehicle would be in his home, a floating village on the bank of the Tonle Sap River, hardly matters. It’s a moving moment as the boy’s shrill voice rings out alone, singing of riches in this impoverished community. Only meters away Sari and his father have unloaded their fishing haul for the day and it has weighed in at 2.5kg.
This family profession may soon have been consigned to the past it would seem and Mam’s film delicately highlights the slow decline of traditional ways of life in the face of encroaching industry. The fish that these fishermen bring home would hardly be considered the prime catch; those have likely been caught further up the river. Similarly, Khieu works tirelessly to harvest rice by hand while her mother taciturnly watches on as a mechanical harvester creates vast amounts of rice in no time. Their family are facing increasing debt problems (having borrowed to buy land and cattle) and it seems that the only way to survive will be for Khieu to go to Phnom Penh and work in a garment factory for $61 a month.
A third family, in the remote north of the country manage to survive by selling baskets and other items they produce by hand but must buy their food from others. The matriarchal Sav has watched the forest around them slowly fall to loggers and other industries using the land; after all, “today, everybody needs land.” From the north to a boat on the Tonle Sap, from a small village to the vast and bustling Phnom Penh, Mam’s film drifts around her subjects, taking in their lives in a verité style. Stunningly shot in their glorious surroundings, these people’s lives make stark viewing in comparison.
Sari reveals early on that he is one of the most educated kids in his village, but still left school early to help out on his father’s boat. As the camera watches time pass it becomes clear for his and Khieu’s generation, the future is going to lie away from family in modern industrial work. This is not in order to prosper, but merely to make enough money to support their families. The lack of any particular direction means that Mam’s documentary is unlikely to appeal to those outside of arthouse circles or without specific interest in the subject matter. However, if given the chance, A River Changes Course is a meandering and enormously engrossing look at these slowly dwindling ways of life.
A River Changes Course screens as part of the DocHouse strand at London’s Lexi Cinema on 23 May, 2013. For more info, visit dochouse.org.