For her directorial debut "A River Changes Course" filmmaker Kalyanee Mam traveled to her native homeland of Cambodia to capture the stories of three young Cambodians struggling to maintain their traditional way of life while the modern industrialized world closes in around them.
The feature-length documentary won the Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema Documentary at this year's Sundance Film Festival for its intimate observation of its subjects while reflecting urgent global issues.
"A River Changes Course" will hold its theatrical premiere at the IFC Center in New York on Oct. 4 and Laemmle Theater in Los Angeles on Oct. 11.
Mam recently answered a few questions about the documentary.
Tell us what inspired you to make this film.
I was born in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge period. I was too young to remember what happened during that time, but through the stories my parents told me, I knew it was the most tragic and horrific period in our nation's history. Nearly two million people were killed and many million more lives were destroyed. I could not imagine that Cambodia, my native country, could ever be afflicted with anything more devastating. Until now. Over the years that I've worked and traveled in Cambodia, I noticed how much the country was changing. Thousands of hectares of forests have been cleared and supplanted with large industrial agricultural crops like rubber, cassava, and sugar cane, displacing indigenous communities and villagers who depend on the land and forests for their livelihood. Dam construction and overfishing are also threatening the livelihood of fishermen and their families. While women factory workers and their famileis in Cambodia are struggling to survive on 80 USD a month. I wanted to help tell the stories of these families and expose the modern horrors that afflict Cambodia, and on many levels, many countries all over the world today.
How long did the project take from conception to festival premiere?
I first conceived of the idea to make the film in October 2008, when I first met Sari Math, the young boy in the film, in a small fishing village on the Tonle Sap River, and he began telling us the story of his life and his family's struggle to survive as their fish catch quickly dwindled over the years. At that moment, I knew I wanted to tell his story and the story of many other families affected by the onslaught of development and globalization. However, we weren't able to begin production until June 2010, after I finished working on Inside Job, a documentary film about the global financial crisis. Two and half years later, the film premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, where it captured the Grand Jury Award for World Cinema Documentary.
How were you able to gain intimate access into the daily lives of the families in the film?
I feel incredibly fortunate and privileged that Sari Math, Sav Samourn, and Khieu Molk and their families opened their homes and their lives to us. We would spend at least five to six days at a time with each family, traveling back and forth over the course of those two years. If the conditions were not so hot, humid, and challenging, we would've stayed much longer, but it was difficult to spend more time than that. During each trip, we lived with the families in their homes, ate meals with them, and followed them wherever they went. I think the meals we shared really bound us together. The secret path to a Cambodian family's heart is food. I know from my own family's love for food. Never refuse food that is offered and you will be loved!
What kind of cameras and equipment did you use to shoot the film?
I shot with the Canon 5D Mark II, using three Canon zoom lenses: 16-35mm, 24-70mm, and 70-200mm, a monopod, and all natural lighting. We captured external sound on a separate Zoom h4n recorder and Tascam dr-05 using an Audio technica boom mic and Sennheiser lavs. For the dolly shots, I used the Kessler pocket dolly.
The monopod was my best friend, allowing me to maneuver quietly and seamlessly. There were times while I was shooting I felt like the camera was merely an extension of myself. I tried to always allow myself to fully engage and flow with the moment and to find beauty in everything I see and capture.
How were you able get such amazing shots aboard the fishing boat?
So interesting that you ask that, because neither I nor Ratanak Leng, who was capturing the sound, knew how to swim and neither of us wore a life jacket. The Tonle Sap is a huge river and a lake that rocks and waves like the open sea so the situation was a bit precarious. But it never occurred to me we were in any danger. I knew I had to get those shots of Sari and his father fishing in open water. So with the camera on a monopod I stood and shot, while trying my best to maintain balance.
Tell us about the editing process. How long did it take? How much footage was there? How did you decide what to keep in the film and what to leave out?
The editing took a total of about 11 months. It took about five to six months to organize the footage (which totaled about 6TB), transcribe the interviews from Khmer to English, and organize sequences for each of the three stories, selecting only the clips I knew would help further the stories. Using these sequences and Final Draft, I put together a storyboard of each of the stories.
I then transferred all the footage and storyboards to Chris Brown, our incredible editor, who over the course of twelve weeks whipped out three, ten minute sequences for each of the stories. After 12 weeks, we accumulated 120 minutes and had to cut off 37 minutes from the film. What we cut out and left in depended entirely on whether the footage supported the overall story we wanted to tell or whether it was just excess fat we could do without. I would be lying if I didn't admit it was a really tough process, but working with Chris was a truly enjoyable and inspiring collaboration, because we started out in the same place - we both shared the same vision on how we wanted to tell the story. We wanted the families to speak for themselves and we wanted the audience to follow them seamlessly on their journey.
What do you want audiences to learn from seeing the film?
I would be thrilled if the only thing the audience took away after seeing the film, was a feeling of being connected. Connected to the families, connected to Cambodia, but especially, connected to the global challenges we are currently faced with as a planet. What is happening in Cambodia is happening all over the world and even in the United States, where most people are just struggling to pay off their mortgages and afford healthcare and education for their children. This is a global phenomenon and we are all struggling to survive. I believe we are at a global tipping point, where we must ask ourselves whether the global financial system we currently live under right now is benefitting all of us, or just a few - the very top one percent? And if so, what can we do about this? The answer must come from all of us as a global community. In Cambodia, we are screening the film and encouraging dialogue and discussion about these issues one village and university at a time. And we hope, that as we begin to raise consciousness about these issues, that action will soon also be taken, from and by the people themselves.
What is your next project?
I actually have several projects in the pipeline. But they all explore the rights of indigenous people, communities, and the social and environmental impact of development and globalization.
Special Thanks to Kalyanee Mam, Paul Chiu and David Magdael & Associates for arranging this interview.