Eco-Movies: "A River Changes Course"
Today we conclude our weeklong celebration of environmental movies.
A River Changes Course (2013)
In select theaters now
A River Changes Course is an eloquent, dispassionate departure from environmental documentaries as polemics against our sins.
The film quietly follows three Cambodian people whose lives are repetitive, physical, and hard. Yet filmmaker Kalyanee Mam seems interested in capturing the perspectives of individuals operating within a developing nation, not steering any conversation that may follow. The film has no voice over, with sparse dialogue translated via subtitles, and a score that yields to the quotidian sounds of winnowing rice or the buzz of a sewing machine.
Mam wordlessly trails Sari Math operating a skiff as he fishes with his father, Khieu Mok, grinning as she learns to operate a sewing machine, and Sav Samourn bathing with her children in a pool of clay-colored water.
Math — often shown sprawled on the floor, scribbling in a notebook — later leaves his family to work on a cassava plantation. Fish catches are dwindling, and Math’s father pushes him to the plantation to earn money for the family.
Mok leaves home for the same reason. Her family has mounting debt for their rice farm, so Mok heads to a garment factory in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. Each day is filled by working, cooking dinner, and sleeping; repeat. Yet Mok hesitates to move back when her mother asks her to return to the farm.
Samourn remains in her rural home, harvesting rice, nursing her youngest daughter, and warily eyeing the surrounding forests. Many have been razed for logging and industrial agriculture.
“Sooner or later, it will be all gone," Samourn says. "The future generations will have no land. With no land, it will be even more difficult for them. What can they do, but become a laborer for someone else? And it’s hard to work for someone else. It’s not like working for yourself. You’re always moving forward when you work for yourself. When you work for someone else, you have nothing.”
Samourn laments that with all her neighbors selling their land, she and her family will have to move, too. Her family can't withstand the encroaching development by itself. “We can’t live alone. We can’t beat them.”
Yet Mok dreams of her village becoming a city.
“In my heart, I really want our village to be like Phnom Penh," Mok says. "If they build a factory here, life would be so easy."
If a factory came to Mok's village, she could have both the comforts of family and of modern amenities — electricity, roads.
"If we wanted to buy fruit, we’d just have to turn our heads. We would have lights shining everywhere. We would be so happy.”
Math says he just wants to work hard and make money. He sees the creeping futility in his hometown — a floating village of people straining to live off of fewer and fewer fish — and on a plantation. He says it might be easier if he worked where he could hold a book and a pen. Regardless, Math seems to know no path would come easy.
"Wherever I can make money, I will go," he says. "Money. We all search for it until we find it. Until we are old. But we can’t keep it with us forever. We make money, and then it’s gone."
A River Changes Course shares remnants of a life that so many citizens of industrialized nations have never known. For better or worse, these people are being pulled with the tide of globalization.
If Mam's film asks anything, it's "How do we go from here?"
A River Changes Course screens on June 1 as part of the San Francisco Green Film Festival (SFGFF), which runs through June 5.
Mackenzie Mount is an editorial intern at Sierra. She's cleaned toilets at Yellowstone National Park and studied sustainable cooking at The Natural Epicurean Academy of Culinary Arts in Austin, Texas.