They see the genocide. They see Tuol Sleng. They see black-and-white photos, but they don't see us in color. We're not ghosts from the past. We're human beings living in the present.
Born in Battambang, Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge regime, Kalyanee Mam fled the refugee camps in 1981—sidestepping landmines and evading soldiers—and went onto become a successful lawyer in the United States. She then set her sights on filmmaking as an extension of her journalistic efforts, dextrously learning on the job as the cinematographer, associate producer and researcher for the Oscar-winning documentary Inside Job. The first-time helmer picked up the Grand Jury Prize in the World Documentary Competition at Sundance earlier this year.
Putting a human face on the vanishing ways of life in rural Cambodia, Mam’s A River Changes Course follows three subjects as they struggle to overcome the crushing effects of clear-cutting, overfishing and encroaching corporate development on their land, which had traditionally provided locals with the means for self-sufficiency for untold generations. In the north, Sav Samourn tirelessly harvests rice while contemplating her family’s future in the mountainous jungles. Sari Math, a young fisherman, lives in a floating community on the Tonle Sap River, which is being fished to extinction. And at the edge of Phnom Penh, Khieu Mok toils in a factory as a sweatshop worker earning just $61 USD a month, hoping to pay off her family’s mounting debt.
Mam works in a verité style, doing nothing to play up the bleak truths she finds. With A River Changes Course, there are no easy answers on how to proceed or biases to steer any conversation that may follow. If Mam asks anything, it’s “Where do we go from here?”
A River Changes Course opens in New York City at the IFC Center on October 4th and Los Angeles at the Laemmle Playhouse 7 on October 11th.
How much of an impact did winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance have on the film? Did the film’s reach grow exponentially through word of mouth?
Since Sundance, which was a shock for us, the film has been doing really well. We’ve been selected at various film festivals and received a lot of prizes. More importantly, it reached a lot of people in Cambodia and the world at large. That was always my intention with the film, especially to circle back to Cambodia with what’s happening right now. I wanted to tell the stories of three Cambodian families that are struggling to maintain their traditional ways of life as the modern world is closing in around them. Thousands of families in Cambodia are going through the exact same thing. They’re being thrown off their land, their rivers and lakes are being fished to extinction, and many Cambodians, women especially, are migrating from the villages to the cities to work in garment factories. We’ve been screening the film all across Cambodia to raise the level of consciousness in the local population. Unlike South Korea or the United States, very few people have access to media or understand what’s happening to them is happening all over the country. And you know, Kee, about the power of media. With the power of consciousness, people are more willing to protest against the government. Right now, Cambodians are protesting against the election results and the government is coming out in full force with batons, water canons and rifles.
You actually went back to visit Cambodia while this was going on.
What I saw there was incredible. In the months and years leading up to the elections, there had been hundreds of protests, especially in the garment factories. I’m sure you remember the garment factory collapse. Thousands of people came out to protest about poor working conditions, the rising cost of living and wages. When I filmed Khieu, she was only making $61 US dollars each month. In the past few months, they strategically raised that to $80 dollars leading up to the national elections. But that $80 dollars a month isn’t enough for Khieu to afford all the basic necessities. When I went back to Cambodia, I actually followed Khieu when she put her vote in the ballot box. She has voted in all the elections and in every single election, the same prime minister and party is voted into power. She’s really looking for change like most Cambodians. You can’t have the same party in power for 28 years. Hun Sen said himself—who’s now 61—that he wants to stay in power until he’s 72! That’s a long time for one person to be in power.
Could you go into the specifics of your dialogue with Khieu regarding the elections?
I asked Khieu what she wanted out of this election. What do you want for yourself and your family? What do you want for your country? She told me, “All I want is a livable wage.” She represents millions of Cambodians. And they not only want a livable wage, but a dignified life. That’s what it comes down to and it’s something they had when they had their land. They were able to grow their own food, make their own medicine, forage for food in the forests, and provide for their families with the fish from rivers and lakes. That’s just impossible now with all the overfishing and the hydroelectric dams that are planning to be built along the Mekong River, which will destroy the waterways. All the forests are being cut down to make way for industrial-agricultural plantations. This used to be farmland that actually fed its people. The farmland is now being used for rubber, cassava, sugar and soy, all of which are then exported out of the country.
What surprised you most when you screened the film to the locals? It must be quite a shock to see what’s happening to them outside of themselves as opposed to living it.
That was quite amazing actually. We had our first screening last October at the largest theater in Phnom Penh. There were 600 people in the audience and the theater was completely packed. 200 people in the audience were parents of garment factory workers who had never before seen inside the factories where their daughters work. For many, this was also their first glimpse of the forests, the lakes and the lives of people outside of their own surroundings because many of them can’t afford to travel to different parts of the country. We went to pick up Sav Samourn and her family in the jungles. Sari’s family came from the river. Khieu’s family came from their village just outside of Phnom Penh. They were all really shocked, but in a good way. For Sav Samourn, this was her first time coming to the city. This was her first time seeing a movie, let alone a movie about her family. Afterwards, Khieu told me that if she had known what the film was, she would have worn make-up. [Laughs] Sari’s father asked me if we could do it all over again because he would wear better clothes. I don’t think they fully understood what I was doing until that very evening. It really spoke to the entire audience. Instead of getting up and asking me questions, they got up and made statements about how they felt! Too often, when people talk about Cambodia, they see us in the past. They see the genocide. They see Tuol Sleng. They see black-and-white photos, but they don’t see us in color. We’re not ghosts from the past. We’re human beings living in the present.
How did you go about choosing the families? I believe you started with Sari.
That’s correct. I met Sari in 2008 and that’s when I first decided to work on this film. I had been traveling to Cambodia for ten years prior to 2008 and saw the rapid changes that were occurring. I wanted to document that before it’s too late. And I’m not saying development is bad. I just know that with development, there are bound to be consequences. When I met Sari, he was only 14 years old—he wasn’t 15 like he says in the film. At the time, he shared his life story and told me how difficult it was for his family because there’s no fish left in the water. He told me he wanted to go to school, get a better job and provide for his family. I had never heard a 14-year-old say that in the United States and I’m sure you don’t find a lot of kids who say things like that in South Korea either. I wanted to understand where that was coming from. I wanted to know what would happen to Sari and you see what happens in the film. His life completely changes.
The disillusionment. That was an incredibly emotional moment.
That’s what happened to all the families I met. As for Sav Smourn and Khieu, I met them in 2010. It was like finding a needle in a haystack with Sav Samourn. We drove out to the forests and spoke with every village chief in the jungles. We rode elephants, boats and motorcycles to get to these remote, faraway places. We explained to them what we were doing and one village chief happened to know the perfect family for it. So, I got on his motorcycle, crossed a river and climbed nine mountains. I couldn’t help but wonder, where are we going? [Laughs] When I met Sav Samourn and her family, I immediately knew they were the ones to follow. I met Khieu through someone who became a friend of mine. When I first met Khieu, we were sitting on the floor of her dormitory and had a meal together. I knew she was perfect for this after hearing stories about her life and her family. I got to know these three families over the course of three years.
As a documentary filmmaker, do you ever find it difficult disarming your subjects and getting them to really open up?
Well, I was very open with the families. I have to be. I have to be completely open about what it is I’m doing. I’m living with them and eating their food! [Laughs] I showed them how much I trusted them and because of that, they can trust me back. I shared my own life story and completely revealed myself to them. It didn’t take very long for them to feel comfortable just being who they are, which was what I was most interested in. So, I got to know them first and interviewed them at different intervals to cover the beginning, the middle and the end. If you notice, I actually never asked them much. I maybe asked a few questions to follow up on what they were saying, but I most wanted to hear what they wanted to talk about. I didn’t want to intrude or prod them. When I asked Khieu what she most wanted and she replied, “I just want the factories to come to my village,” that really shocked me. I couldn’t believe she said that, but I didn’t show my feelings. To this day, I haven’t asked her about it and respect her opinion. These people live their lives without that kind of intrusion, so why should it be any different on film?
You have a remarkable story of your own. Did those early experiences largely dictate the trajectory you’re currently on?
That’s a great question. My family and I were refugees that came to the US in 1981. We fled this atrocious period during the Khmer Rouge. I grew up hearing all these stories about the genocide from my parents and that really affected me. It very strongly influenced my ways of thinking and confused me too. [Laughs] I didn’t really understand who I was, where I belonged or what my life purpose was. That’s why I went back to visit Cambodia. I wanted to understand my history and where I came from. My parents always instilled in me the importance of my country and the importance of education, but also the importance of helping others. I usually don’t like to use the word “help” because I don’t think I actually “help” anyone. All I can do is share stories and in doing so, urge others to do the same. That’s something I’ve always done, even as a lawyer. As a lawyer, I was really interested in refugee and immigration law. I worked with refugees in South Africa and immigrants in Los Angeles—particularly women who were brought here, almost against their will, and now the victims of domestic violence. When I was working in Iraq, I was compelled to help the Iraqis, who became my friends, fight for their right to leave their country and resettle as refugees elsewhere in places like Syria, Jordan and Egypt. What’s happening to them had already happened to me. It’s like history repeating itself.
That took the form of a short documentary, Between Earth & Sky.
I felt like the only way I could help them was by putting their stories on film and reach as many people as possible. I had no experience as a filmmaker. I had no idea what I was doing. All I knew was that I wanted to make a film about the subject. It was really the passion that let me do it. I don’t think you can put in that much of an effort into something unless you really believe in it.
You made quite a leap from that to Inside Job. Just how steep was that learning curve?
It was steep. It was already steep when I started working on Between Earth & Sky because I had never directed or produced anything before, let alone hold a camera. Inside Job was a major film with a budget over two million. When Charles [Ferguson] first asked me to work on the film with him, he wanted me to come on board as an associate producer and researcher, not as a cinematographer. When Charles asked me to be the cinematographer, he had seen some of the footage for Between Earth & Sky.
How did that collaboration come about?
You’re going to think I made this up, but I met him randomly at a screening at the Arclight in Los Angeles. It’s not like I knew some big shot in Hollywood. I just approached him at a screening and told him about my project in the Middle East. I don’t know what it was about that encounter, but maybe he felt the passion in my voice. I was very emotional then, having just come back from Iraq. When he asked me to contact him, I emailed him that very night and he wrote back right away. He actually became the executive producer of Between Earth & Sky. Maybe he thought, “She went to law school, so she must be smart enough.” [Laughs] The very first question he asked me was how much knowledge I had about economics and all I took was Econ 101 as an undergrad. He seemed to be fine with that. When he asked me how I felt about working with him on Inside Job, of course I said yes! I would be traveling the world with Charles and David [Mendez], my partner who did the sound for Inside Job, and the music for A River Changes Course and Between Earth & Sky. How could I say no to that? It was the most exhaustive trip that I had ever been on.
Can you recall anything that was particularly difficult to overcome during production?
There was a point in Singapore when we were about to leave for China where Charles asked me if I had any leads on gaining inside access to the factories there. I had nothing. I had spent all night, every night for the past three to four weeks cold calling factories and I had nothing to go on. We were about to leave for the Guangdong province the very next day. On top of that, Charles asked me if I felt comfortable going by myself, so it was just David and me on that trip. It was a complete miracle, but I was able to gain access into four factories within the following few days.
Do you ever have the urge to make a documentary about your own past, about the Khmer Rouge and genocide as told from your own unique perspective?
My family has always wanted me to do that. Maybe one day? I just don’t feel the inspiration to do it right this moment. I feel like there are so many more important things going on in the world, more important than my own personal story. I want to work on projects that reveal the most important things that are happening in society today. I can tell my own story so much more effectively by telling other people’s stories. What you saw on screen… Actually, you probably saw it on your laptop—
Yes, but not by choice.
[Laughs] A River Changes Course is really an autobiography for me. My friends who have seen the film see me reflected in the film. They see my history even though my physical presence is absent. It’s a much subtler way in which to tell my story. I’ve gone through a lot of the things that other families have gone through. I’m also struggling with the rising cost of living in the US. I’m also struggling with healthcare. I’m also struggling with student loans, over a hundred thousand dollars in law school loans that I’m still paying off due to the rising cost of education.
In harmony with the film, which doesn’t set out to blame or shame anything in particular, you radiate so much optimism and hopefulness. Does that take much effort on your part?
I think it comes naturally to all of us. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Genetically, I think we’re designed to be hopeful. I don’t think we would have children if we didn’t have that optimism. I mean, why would we have children, knowing that we’re doomed? We always hope that things will improve and things will change for the better. I don’t have children myself and maybe because of that… No, I’m kidding. [Laughs] I do have a lot of hope and that’s why I continue to make films. I am hopeful that we can change things and have a dialogue about important issues to meet that end.
What story are you chasing next?
I have some projects that will keep me occupied for the next few years. I’m working on a short documentary that might turn into a feature about Lakota children being taken from their families and placed in foster care facilities. The government of South Dakota is responsible, which recieves millions of dollars in federal funding for the programs. It’s in violation of the Indian Child Welfare Act, which stipulates that the children be placed with their relatives or tribes first, before being placed in white foster care homes and facilities. And within these facilities, many of the children are being drugged with pharmaceutical and psychiatric drugs, sometimes starting as early as two years old. In the last six or seven years, the amount of money the state government has spent on pharmaceutical drugs has risen astronomically by about 1,300%. This is crazy stuff.
My project after that concerns China and Africa. I would like to follow a migrant worker who travels from a village in China to a country in Africa to work on infrastructure projects. I also want to follow someone in a country in Africa who has been displaced by these infrastructure projects and then forced to work on the infrastructure projects. I want to understand the complexity of this relationship. I think we too often think of China and Africa in broad strokes: China as this monolithic dragon out to devour and maintain their stronghold on other countries and Africa as this impoverished continent that will always depend on foreign aid to subsist. Only by understanding the real situation can we really truly understand how we can relate to China and how we can relate to the African nations. And we have to understand it in a very intimate way. By looking at the human stories, we’re able to understand the bigger story.