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Meet the 2013 Sundance Filmmakers #51: Kalyanee Mam Reveals the Courage of Survival in “A River Changes Course”

Meet the 2013 Sundance Filmmakers #51: Kalyanee Mam Reveals the Courage of Survival in "A River Changes Course"

In her feature directorial debut, “A River Changes Course,” Cambodian filmmaker Kalyanee Mam goes on a journey following the environmental and economical struggles threatening the futures by three individals in her native country. The cinematographer of 2010’s Academy Award-winning documentary “Inside Job,” Mam’s film gives an honest examination of developmental problems facing many Cambodians today, including deforestation, overfishing, and debt. “A River” premiered in the World Cinema Documentary Competition.

What It’s About: Three young Cambodians struggle to overcome the crushing effects of deforestation, overfishing, and debt in this beautiful story of an ancient culture ravaged by globalization.

And So It’s Really About: Devastating scars are etched into the red earth as Sav Samourn ponders the future for her family in the deep jungles of Cambodia. Tumultuous waves pound against Sari Math’s boat as he navigates through waters being fished to extinction. The sewing machine taps and hums beneath Khieu Mok’s delicate fingers as she struggles to make money to pay off her family’s mounting debt. Against this backdrop “A River Changes Course” is a cinematically spectacular and sensory journey into the lives of three individuals and their families that inspires the viewer to feel, to question, and to immerse in a world both distinctive and familiar.

What’s been your path to filmmaking: I was born in Battambang, Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge Regime. In 1979, my family and I fled to the refugee camps at the Thai-Cambodian border and eventually to the United States. Even to this day my mother recounts stories of our flight. My father walked in front of us to protect us from land mines. We slept on pieces of plastic laid across the wet, jungle floor. And we were constantly evading soldiers following us along the way. These stories and many others inspired me to return to my homeland for the first time in 1998, during the summer of my junior year at Yale. And they continue to inspire me today to make films about atrocities occurring in Cambodia at this very moment. But I was not always a filmmaker. After graduating from UCLA Law School, I worked as a legal consultant in Mozambique and Iraq. In Mozambique, I discovered a passion for photography. In Iraq, I discovered a passion for advocacy on issues at the forefront of our global consciousness. Those two passions fortuitously connected to enable me to direct, produce, and shoot my first documentary short about Iraqi refugees living in Syria, Jordan, and Egypt. And also led me to work as Cinematographer, Associate Producer, and Researcher on the Oscar-winning documentary, Inside Job. I hope to continue to combine my passion for art, imagery, and advocacy, to tell compelling and universal stories that resonate with us at this very critical time.

What was your single biggest challenge in bringing this to the screen: This was not an easy film to make. The physical challenge of filming in scorching hot and humid conditions in the remote, and mountainous jungles of Cambodia and the Tonle Sap River was sometimes almost unbearable. Ratanak and I would stare at each other speechless and dream of cold and icy drinks nowhere to be found so deep in the forests. However, even the toughest times could not compare to the pain of witnessing the suffering of the three families that had become like family to us. We knew that in a few years’ time, Sav Samourn and her family’s lives, previously untouched, would change forever once all the forests around them are cut down. Once the fish populations (some already extinct) begin to seriously dwindle in the Tonle Sap River, Sari, his family, and his entire village must also look for a source of life and livelihood elsewhere, away from the river. It was also challenging to watch Khieu and her family, continue to eke out a living while also coping with overwhelming debt. But the hope of one day sharing their stories with the world always encouraged us and made every challenge we faced an opportunity to tell the most honest and inspiring story we could tell.

What do you want Sundance audiences to take away from this film: If the audience at Sundance can truly relate to the subjects and their stories and discover a personal connection to their own lives, I will be truly happy. I spent two years living with and following the lives of the families. I shared meals with them, experiences with them, and we traded countless jokes and stories. Ultimately, I realized that their struggles within this changing and globalized world are not too different from my own and all of us today. All of us must face the environmental consequences of deforestation and overfishing. And many of us, in this struggling economy, are grappling with college loans, mortgages, and mounting hospital bills. Some of us are even struggling to find work. But what keeps us sane, grounded, and hopeful for our future are our families and communities. Khieu, Sari, and Sav Samourn impressed me most with their strength and conviction to determine their own destiny and future. One of my most treasured clips from the film is at the end when Sav Samourn puts on her hat and gazes into the future with a look of fierceness and determination. The companies may come, the forests may be cut down, but her life and the lives of her children will always endure. It is this tenacity, the same tenacity that ensured the survival of so many families during the Khmer Rouge period, including my own, that gives me hope for Cambodia and the future of our world.

Indiewire invited Sundance Film Festival directors to tell us about their films, including what inspired them, the challenges they faced and what they’re doing next. We’ll be publishing their responses leading up to the 2013 festival.

Keep checking HERE every day up to the launch of the festival on January 17 for the latest profiles.

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