A Frustration Runs Through It, by Sarah Brinks
It is easy to forget that people all over the world are very similar despite different languages, customs and countries. A River Changes Course is a documentary that highlights how people living in rural Cambodia want their families to be happy and healthy despite severe poverty, government interference, and a damaged environment. My biggest complaint was that there was no clear story, subject, or issue to follow in the film. It was simply a slice of Cambodian life captured on video and edited together. To be honest, I learned more about the movie reading the press kit then I did watching the film.
A River Changes Course is about three families in Cambodia trying to survive day to day. One family lives in the jungle, the second on a rice farm, and the third are fishermen on the Tonle Sap river. The film has no narrator and almost no title cards so you never know who anyone is or where you are. I don’t think every documentary needs a narrator or a crystal clear narrative but I think this documentary would have been improved leaps and bounds by having a guide for the audience. I had a lot of questions about what was going on, how the people lived, and the details of their environmental concerns. Instead you just see people going about their daily lives occasionally talking to the camera about what was going on. This left the viewer separated from what was happening on screen instead of invested.
A River Changes Course is trying to make a point about the effects global climate change and government interference is having on the land and by proxy the people’s livelihoods. One of the women who lives in the jungle points out a section and explains that when she was young they never used to go through there because there were tigers and elephants and other dangerous animals. Now it has been so devastated by deforestation, the animals are gone and it is safe to walk there now, this was the most impactful example in the film. Examples like this help to reinforce the environmental concerns of rural Cambodians but some of the impact is lost when there is no further information given in the film to emphasize or explain these issues.
I hate to be such a downer about a documentary that is clearly trying. But I think that is my biggest problem with A River Changes Course, you can see its potential it just never achieves it. In a more experienced documentarian’s hands, A River Changes Course could have been an informative, emotional documentary about an area little explored by Westerners. I wanted to care about the families in the film but when you don’t even know anyone’s name it is difficult to really invest. First time director Kaylanee Mam clearly had a vision and she stuck to it, the problem was that the film as a documentary ultimately comes up with little to say for itself.
The two things that I did really like about the film was the close up look at how the Cambodian people carve their lives out of land in the jungle, on the farm, and from the river. The film starts with a little girl digging potatoes out of ground. Later we see a couple of very small girls finding and cleaning roots. You also see how the family on the rice farm cuts the rice plants and separates the grains from the stalks. In the fishing village there is a shot of a little girl chopping the heads off of hundreds of fish, which was a bit disturbing. Life isn’t easy there and the young and old have to work to keep things going. The other theme I liked was simply that they all wanted better lives for their families. The adults wanted their children’s lives to be easier and the children wanted to be able to go to school and for their parents to be happy. All the children in the film say they would love to study if they could. Many of the older children have to leave school after the fifth grade in order to help make money for their families. All the women interviewed that had left the country to go to the capitol to work in the factories said they wished they could go back and be with their families. Some of the women had left behind small children for several years in order to try and make money for their families. During the making of the film the government had raised the minimum wage from sixty-one US dollars a month to one hundred US dollars a month. It was a gentle reminder that when you have nothing you dream of having anything. One little boy sings a song about having enough money to own a villa and a car; he was singing this song standing next to a shack on a riverbank.
A River Changes Course is the perfect example of what happens when a documentarian is too close to her subjects and looses all sense of the bigger picture. The film did make me want to know more about the subjects and their country but it made me frustrated when the film supplied me with none of that information. I wish the filmmaker had a taken a step back from her subjects who she clearly cared deeply about and gave the audience a chance to see a little more of the big picture. What you do see of how people live day to day is interesting it just would have been good to know some of their names and how they were related to each other. I really can’t recommend A River Changes Course unless you really want to see what life is like for rural Cambodian with no larger context.