In A River Changes Course, Cambodia is depicted as a country where urban development—and the shifting economic and workplace dynamics it’s created—has led to no-win situations for citizens. Kalyanee Mam’s gorgeously photographed, narration-free documentary situates itself alongside three families: one that earns its living harvesting rice, another that makes its way by fishing, and a third that subsists off the potatoes and bamboo found in countryside forests. In these clans, children are not only expected to participate in maintaining the family unit’s stability (caring for kids, doing chores), but to work in the fields, and if things become too tough, to depart for brighter horizons, often in dingy factories where income is meager. Prospects are dim no matter where these people choose to reside, and A River Changes Course captures their struggle with an ethnographic gaze that generally maintains enough detachment to avoid excessive, judgmental handwringing and heartstring-tugging.
Images of brush being burned in order to replenish the rice-nurturing soil are juxtaposed with widespread deforestation—much of it at the hands of Chinese corporations—to present conflicting visions of the healing and destructive effects of razing the land for survival. That comparison is made sorrowfully by A River Changes Course, less because the film takes a wholly negative view of corporate development than because it recognizes that, for so many Cambodians, such change affords little increased hope. For Sari Math—forced to abandon school at age 15 in order to work at a cassava plantation owned by the Chinese, where he strives to earn enough to help support his parents and many siblings—the money he makes is scarcely enough to have an impact. It’s a situation also faced by Khieu, who moves to Phnom Penh and finds she can barely scrape by on her own, much less net enough cash to aid her poor mother.
A River Changes Course thus proves a lament for a lose-lose proposition in which indigenous people, unable to continue relying on their natural resources for sustenance (because they’re no longer profitable enough, or have been bought by corporations), are compelled to seek employment in far-off cities where conditions are no better, and possibly worse. When not ominously panning across devastated fields or through crowded sewing plants, Mam paints this dire portrait with an eye toward her subjects’ faces, capturing in lingering close-ups a sense of not just sadness, but also of frustrated despair born from the realization that no matter which way they turn, they face a bleak future.
The film’s alluring, borderline-hypnotic snapshots of day-to-day manual labor (hacking grass fields, sifting pans of rice) flirt with unduly romanticizing its subjects’ simple working-class existence. Nonetheless, Mam digs deeply enough into their lives to expose how grim economic realities result in fewer opportunities to send kids to school, which in turn creates more desperate workers ready to be exploited by the same corporations that co-opted their land. It’s a circle of disadvantage that, according to the view provided by A River Changes Course, seems only to be escalating in both speed and scope.