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Underhill - A River Changes Course - Visual Anthropology [Film Review][Cambodia]

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A River Changes Course
Julie Thi Underhill
Department of Ethnic Studies , University of California, Berkeley ,
Berkeley , CA , USA
Published online: 19 Dec 2013.
To cite this article: Julie Thi Underhill (2014) A River Changes Course, Visual Anthropology:
Published in cooperation with the Commission on Visual Anthropology, 27:1-2, 204-206, DOI:
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08949468.2014.852944
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Visual Anthropology, 27: 204–206, 2014
Copyright # Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
ISSN: 0894-9468 print=1545-5920 online
DOI: 10.1080/08949468.2014.852944
Downloaded by [University of California, Berkeley] at 21:42 19 December 2013
A River Changes Course
A River Changes Course. Kalyanee Mam, director, producer and
cinematographer; Ratanak Leng, producer; Chris Brown, editor; David Mendez, composer and music director; Zach Martin
and Angie Yesson, sound; Youk Chhang, executive producer.
Produced by Migrant Films in association with the Documentation Center of Cambodia, Phnom Penh; 2012, color, 83 mins.;
in Khmer and Jarai, with English subtitles. Sales: Catherine
Le Clef, CAT&Docs, 18 rue Quincampoix, Suite no. 133, 75004
Paris, France; tel.: þ33 1 44 59 63 53; email: [email protected]
Since Democratic Kampuchea’s collapse in 1979, most sources on the country
foreground the psychological turmoil caused by Pol Pot’s regime. Yet Cambodians in the present century face new threats to their survival, a situation
addressed by Kalyanee Mam’s first film. A Cambodian-born refugee raised in
the United States, where she got a law degree before becoming a filmmaker,
Mam returned to her homeland to direct, produce and shoot a documentary
chronicling the human and ecological impact of deforested land, dammed rivers
and burgeoning sweatshops. Attentive to Cambodia’s ethnic diversity, the film
focuses on a Jarai woman named Sav Samourn, who forages and grows crops with
her children in the remote jungles of northeast Cambodia; a teenage Cham boy
named Sari Math, who fishes with his family on the Tonle Sap River in central
Cambodia, before laboring at a Chinese cassava plantation in western Cambodia;
and a Khmer woman named Khieu Mok, who migrates from her small farming
village to work in the garment factories of Phnom Penh. While centering on
diverse individuals living in different regions of Cambodia, Mam underscores
their commonalities—their desire to help the survival of their families, complicated by increasing desperation as their traditional ways of life disappear, in an
era of steadily diminishing returns.
The film opens with footage of Sav Samourn’s family in northeastern Cambodia,
foraging for food in the jungles, with children fully participating in the household
economy. The setting then shifts to the Tonle Sap River where Sari Math lives and
works as a fisherman, after having left school in seventh grade to help with his
family’s burden. We are next introduced to Khieu Mok in her village outside
Phnom Penh, where she farms alongside her mother until migrating to the capital
city to work as a seamstress. The film alternates between these main subjects, shifting between their settings, eventually incorporating the cassava plantation where
Math labors. Throughout the film, Samourn emphasizes the deleterious effects of
Downloaded by [University of California, Berkeley] at 21:42 19 December 2013
Film Reviews
deforestation and land grabbing, revealing how successive generations are
harmed by these losses. Similarly, Math’s family laments the disappearance of
fish, turning fishermen into laborers and leaving Math’s father with doubts about
the self-sufficiency of future generations. For Mok, agricultural work cannot
pay her family’s debts off, as she joins the generation of youth who have left
Cambodia’s countryside to work as subsistence laborers in sweatshops. Throughout, the elders express concern about the next generation’s ability to care for itself,
due to disappearing natural and economic resources (forests, fish and farmland),
whereas their children deeply worry about their ability to alleviate their families’
financial burdens.
A River Changes Course succeeds in depicting the drastic transformations in
Cambodia, by chronicling the widespread economic ailments and ecological tragedies of a small, impoverished nation. Mam’s meditative cinéma vérité approach
creates a slow pace and naturalness in each scene. Her establishment of trust with
her subjects reveals intimacy and comfort between her subjects and also between
them and the filmmaker, evident in the filming of tender events such as mothers
picking lice nits from daughters’ hair, Khieu Mok ‘‘coining’’ her mother to ward
off a cold, and Sari Math’s father playfully urging his young son Akai to get an
‘‘antenna’’ of an erection after a swim in the river. Despite this tenderness between
family members, Mam refuses to romanticize her subjects, showing Sav Samourn
threatening to hit her daughter if she doesn’t obey an order and Sari Math’s sister
Om Mey similarly threatening to hit another sibling. Mam unflinchingly depicts
Cambodians rather than omitting potentially unflattering actions of her subjects.
Although cinéma vérité creates heightened intimacy in A River Changes Course,
Mam’s absorbing film-style might challenge viewers who prefer a straightforward approach. This film is not a traditional historical, ethnographic or political
documentary with voiceover narration or captioned names. Mam never identifies
the distinct ethnic identities of Samourn, Math and Mok, nor does she often interview them. Rather, she encourages the viewer to learn her subjects’ concerns by
observing their everyday interactions with family members and as laborers. In
addition, some viewers might be challenged by abrupt edits between different
locations, edits without fades or black clips. Although this editing technique
reinforces simultaneity and continuity between subjects—a deliberate choice on
the part of Mam and her editor—similar landscapes while rice harvesting, for
instance, might challenge a viewer to locate the next scene accurately, as geographical contexts suddenly shift. However, the rich offerings of the film and
the commentary about the simultaneity of problems overshadow these momentary confusions about location.
Visual anthropologists and documentary film scholars would appreciate A
River Changes Course for highlighting contemporary concerns in Cambodia. Those
interested in indigenous media or diasporic film studies would be piqued,
though, by Mam’s position as a Cambodian-American refugee-turned-filmmaker,
although Mam never reveals her identity during the film, and only allows her
voice to appear during her final conversation with Math.
The film would be useful in anthropology courses dealing with globalization,
indigenous rights, poverty, kinship, environmental destruction and internal
migration, and in courses about the economy or ecology of Southeast Asia or
Film Reviews
specifically Cambodia. The subtitles, translating Khmer and Jarai into English,
make this film accessible to diverse audiences. Mam’s high-definition cinematography and crisp audio increase the value of the film. In addition to its relevance
to multiple academic disciplines, the film has enjoyed a strong reception on the
film festival circuit, earning many distinctions through its effective storytelling
and compelling cinematography, including the 2013 Sundance Film Festival
Grand Jury Prize for world cinema documentary.
Downloaded by [University of California, Berkeley] at 21:42 19 December 2013
Julie Thi Underhill
Department of Ethnic Studies
University of California, Berkeley
Berkeley, CA
[email protected]
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