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PARK CITY — A dispiriting look at vanishing ways of life in rural Cambodia, Kalyanee Mam‘s A River Changes Course spends time with three families in different parts of the country, each of them finding it increasingly hard to live off the land (or water) as corporate development creeps up on them. Honest and well made but lacking a strong hook, its theatrical life will likely be limited to the fest circuit.
Taking a verite approach, the doc eschews narration and explanatory titles, except for those telling us where we are. (We hear the filmmaker’s voice once at the end, as she asks a teenager if he remembers their first encounter years earlier.) In the north, we meet a farm family whose preschool-aged kids clean the potatoes Mom digs up. On a river through the country’s heart, fishers subsist on what others would consider bait fish. In a village outside Phnom Penh, a rice-farming matriarch is struggling to pay the loans she took out to buy acreage and a water buffalo.
In each story, children are a question mark: Can they earn their keep at home, or is there so little productive work they must seek wages elsewhere? The dilemma is most poignant with Khieu Mok, who moves to Phnom Penh to help her mother pay off loans. Just the van ride there costs over a third of the base wage (61 U.S. dollars) she’ll earn in a month at a garment factory. (Khieu’s story is more complicated than we see here, as the press kit reveals, and might have made a doc all on its own.)
Mam, who fled strife in Cambodia in 1979 and was a lawyer before turning to film, has an obvious affinity for her subjects. She does nothing to play up the poverty she finds here — rather, it’s presented as a plain fact of life. Still, many Western viewers will find her subjects’ situations downbeat enough to overwhelm the beauty of the places they live and the admiration they deserve for tirelessness in the face of increasing hardship.
Director/director of photography: Kalyanee Mam
Producers: Kalyanee Mam, Ratanak Leng
Executive producer: Youk Chhang
Music: David Mendez
Editor: Chris Brown
Sales: Catherine Le Clef, Cat & Docs
No rating, 83 minutes
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