In Cambodia there is a beautiful species of migratory butterflies. According to certain village elders, these creatures fly north to Laos for part of the year and return with stunning new patterns on their wings. This may not be exactly true, but that doesn’t entirely matter. You’re welcome to do your own research on lepidoptera migration. In Kalyanee Mam’s prize-winning debut feature, A River Changes Course, these insects are a central metaphor of sorts. The film is a glimpse into the lives of Cambodian villagers, many of whom are young people who have left their families to get jobs in far away regions of their country. Like the butterflies, they come back quite profoundly altered.
If you’re concerned that this is a little bit obvious, don’t worry. This is the only moment of blunt symbolism in the film. Mam has directed a documentary that is much more concerned with the unadorned reality of rural Cambodia. More than half of the Southeast Asian nation is under the age of 25, the local economy is in a state of drastic change and agrarian villages are under a great deal of pressure. None of these facts are explicitly articulated by A River Changes Course by expert interviews or charts, but rather emerge naturally as a result of Mam’s storytelling.
The film has three principle subjects. Sari Math is a teenage boy growing up in a fishing village on the Tonle Sap River. Due to everything from illegal fishing to larger nets, the catch is diminishing and Sari’s family is struggling. He’s already quit school to help his parents, and he may have to leave home to find work. Khieu Mok is also quite young and was raised in a village outside of Phnom Penh, where her mother farms rice. As with fishing, the small rice farmers are in trouble, and Khieu has been forced to move to the capital city and work in a garment factory. Finally, Sav Samourn is a farmer and mother struggling to survive in the wake of large-scale deforestation.
A River Changes Course is about more than these three individuals, however. The overwhelming theme is youth in general. Mam follows Sav’s children as well as the other young people around Khieu and Sari. One very quickly gets the (demographically accurate) impression that Cambodia is a very young country. On the one hand this is tragic, as the film shows us the rapidly dwindling options available to this vast generation. Sav voices her anxiety that all of the young people in her country will end up working in factories or on Chinese-run massive agricultural operations, and no one will be able to work independently. Khieu and her coworkers in Phnom Penh aren’t able to save money, and Sari is forced to work on a cassava plantation away from home.
Yet this is simultaneously a film about possibility. Part of this comes from Mam’s absolutely gorgeous cinematography. Cambodia is a stunningly alluring country, and she is hardly interested in hiding this from the audience. Beyond that, the buoyancy of youth itself offers a silver lining. Children sing wishful songs of future wealth and happiness, and the joyful wonder that comes with such an age is never too far off screen. A River Changes Course brims with the glimmer of youth, even when it’s subtly hidden by the already tempered and rational expectations of Khieu and Sari. All hope is not yet lost.
If the film has one major flaw, it is that it tries to cover too much ground. In the space of 83 minutes Mam not only stretches her narrative over three separate families but also tries to keep a number of larger issues in close context. It can feel as if she is bouncing about too quickly from the encroachment on indigenous land rights and the dwindling fish supply to the conditions in garment factories and the plight of migrant workers. Perhaps this is simply a hallmark of the first feature, but its structure could have been planned a little bit better.
This is still an exciting debut. Mam’s skill with a camera alone is something to watch for in the future, and the plural storytelling in this film could be a sign of very interesting things to come.
A River Changes Course is now playing in New York City and opens in L.A. on October 11th. For more info and playdates, see the film’s official website here.