In Cambodia, the river of life flows in a perpetual cycle of death and destruction. Water is the source of all life. And the Tonle Sap River, home to one of the most of diverse bodies of freshwater in the world, is the beating heart that gives life and sustenance to the people of Cambodia. Kbang Tik Tonle, the film’s Khmer title, signifies the traditional practice of dipping one’s hands into the water and drinking the water with both hands. In this one act, we are bound to nature and nature is bound to us. But today, we drink water not with our hands, but with a cup, sometimes glass, many times plastic, and increasingly, made of Styrofoam.
The river of life, the beating heart that has sustained us for so long is now changing course. And so the lives that depend on this river and the rich land surrounding it are changing course as well.
My first trip to Cambodia was in 1998, only seventeen years after my family and I fled this war-torn country, and only a few years after the country was beginning to rebuild itself again. I was shocked by much of what I saw – the poverty, desperation, and corruption that plagued the country. But I was also deeply affected by the beauty that surrounded me – the beauty of the landscape, the people, the ancient culture, and the many smiles that greeted me in my journey. What I did not expect was how rapidly the country would change within the next decade.
Large tracts of forests, once home to indigenous tribes in Cambodia, are granted to influential logging companies. The dirt roads, once unsurpassable are now smooth, shimmering asphalt, easing the transport of freshly cut timber from the virgin forests of the Northeast to Vietnam. At the heart of Cambodia, on the Tonle Sap Lake, fishermen who once boasted catching more fish than they could ever eat or sell, now suffer from ever dwindling catch. Vast swathes of farmland once owned by subsistence farmers are bulldozed and transformed into sugar, rubber, and cassava plantations. While young village women are forced to migrate from the countryside to the factories of Phnom Penh to help their families make ends meet and pay off mounting debt.
As I witnessed these changes I wondered how the changes are affecting people’s lives and the rich and beautiful country that I had first fallen in love with ten years ago.
In October 2008, as I toured visiting guests through the halls of Tuol Sleng (the infamous Khmer Rouge execution center in Phnom Penh and now a genocide museum), I stared at the hundreds of B&W portraits posted on the walls. The portraits were taken of prisoners as they arrived at the prison, before they were forced to write their confessions, subjected to excessive beating and torture, and ultimately killed. As I gazed at the faces I imagined they were portraits of the Cambodian people who are now suffering from the loss of access to their land, their forests, and their rivers. I also imagined they were portraits of women toiling in the factories, providing for their families, but also making only 2 USD a day. I wondered how I would feel ten years from now, staring at their faces and peering into the past. At that moment, I knew I could not wait for the future to reveal the atrocities of this present.
While making the film, 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’s future.
This is a decisive moment for Cambodia. And so it is also a decisive moment for the world. How do we find balance? How do we advance and develop without destroying ourselves in the process? By delving deeply into the lives of families directly affected by development and globalization, I hope this film, A River Changes Course, will invite viewers not to draw simple conclusions, but to ask questions that demand thoughtful answers and action.
– Kalyanee Mam