A RIVER CHANGES COURSE is part of the Sydney Film Festival in the INTERNATIONAL DOCUMENTARIES section and will be screening on SUN June 9 at 6pm at Dendy Opera Quays and TUE June 11 at 10am at Event Cinemas George Street – tickets can be purchased HERE. Be sure to check out the entire program for the SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL HERE.



Twice a year in Cambodia, the Tonle Sap River changes course, while the river of life flows in a perpetual cycle of death and rebirth and of creation and destruction. Working in an intimate, verite style, filmmaker Kalyanee Mam (Director of Photography for the Oscar-winning documentary INSIDE JOB), spent two years in her native homeland following three young Cambodians struggling to overcome the crushing effects of deforestation, overfishing, and overwhelming debt. A breathtaking and unprecedented journey from the remote, mountainous jungles and floating cities of the Cambodian countryside to the bustling garment factories of modern Phnom Penh, A RIVER CHANGES COURSE traces a remarkable and devastatingly beautiful story of a country torn between the rural present and an ominous industrial future.


Kalyanee Mam's A RIVER CHANGES COURSE - Sari Math
Kalyanee Mam’s A RIVER CHANGES COURSE – Sari Math



The great Tonle Sap River in Central Cambodia is home to a diversity of fish and wildlife. And the floating village on the river is home for Sari and his family, who depend on fishing for a living.  But life on the river has changed rapidly due to large fishing concessions, large fish traps, and the rise of illegal fishing. As Sari stands on his boat facing the horizon, Sari wonders what direction the future will take him.


Kalyanee Mam's A RIVER CHANGES COURSE - Khieu Mok
Kalyanee Mam’s A RIVER CHANGES COURSE – Khieu Mok



In a small village outside the capital city of Phnom Penh, Khieu and her mother bring in their annual rice harvest. To help make ends meet, she and her family must borrow money to buy land and a water buffalo. And to pay back their mounting debt, Khieu prepares to join the truckloads of young people who have already left the village to find work in garment factories in Phnom Penh.


Kalyanee Mam's A RIVER CHANGES COURSE - Sav Samourn
Kalyanee Mam’s A RIVER CHANGES COURSE – Sav Samourn



In the remote and mountainous jungles of Northeast Cambodia, Sav Samourn and her family live in a thatched hut perched on a hill surrounded by cashew orchards, golden rice fields, and thick, dense forest. All around her, she witnesses the encroachment of large companies and the slashing and clearing of forests. Sav Samourn discovers she is no longer afraid of wild animals and ghosts that once roamed the forests she calls home. Now, she is afraid of people.




This film is just stunning to watch. Director, Kalyanee Mam spent two years filming this and the effect has become more of a poetic look into the effects of the mountainous devastation these people are slowly facing – they are becoming the fish in Sari Math’s river and being pushed to gruelling extinction – how a worker doing 10+hrs a day in Phnom Penh can live on a regulated monthly salary of $61US is astounding – I earn this in half a day or less. Everything these people do is dire – I look at it as a world we live in that still has abundant slavery – we just ship it overseas now so we do not have to see it and can feel good about ourselves in our somewhat cushy lifestyles. Because of us these people are losing entire cultures and ways of life and food and water – it is horrendous and poetically sad to view.




It is a strangely made docco and has nothing in your face and no activism to stop it and we only, oddly, hear Mam’s voice in the film once, just before the end of the film when talking to Sari – I could see why she spoke there – this lovely kid with so much potential who is years beyond his age was looking into his own future and not seeing a great deal – his youth was crushing before our eyes and right then Mam stepped in and took him back to a better time and a memory of strength and happiness and youthfulness, I loved that moment.




The beauty and simplicity of the way this film is told is also the only negative I have for the film. It doesn’t explain facts enough, or basically, at all – it just shows them from the views of these people, they are a simple people who do their thing but they are weighted down by Western civilisations issues of money and debt and livelihood – I wish I could remember the lines that Sari said about money at the end of the film – they were philosophical and wise for a 17yr old barely educated kid from the back of the world. But even the film title was not explained, or I missed it completely (quite possible) and I did not know the meaning until I researched the film for this article.

I found Khieu Mok’s story even sadder because she thought all the Western World progress was the best thing happening and wanted the land cleared near their property for a factory to be built so she would be happier and they would all be better off – she longed for the bustling life of a city from her brief time there working in clothing factories earning about $100US a month form lots of overtime – of which most of it went back to the family to pay off the debt of the property and animals. I think the loneliness of the farming life wore her down and she feared of becoming her mother so escaping it or bringing the world closer was her compromise.

One thing is certain from this film, these people’s lives are not going to improve unless they can get out – to corporations they are pests blocking progress and to us they are a sad story but 99% of the people that see this film will do nothing about it – the 1% may buy less products with palm oil or donate a bit more to charity but this film is Darwin’s theory of evolution at work and the weak will not survive.

This film is slow moving but a flowing piece of sad, however noble and dignified, cinematic poetry – it should be seen on the big screen and appreciated for its look into this slowly human eroding world that will not be for very long. Change and progress will see to it and the world will grind on with this beautiful piece of culture lost.




The film has been quite a success, it has won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance for World Cinema – Documentary and also won the Human Rights Award for the River Run Film Festival – if nothing this film will be like a 60Minutes episode and highlight the plight facing these people. I hope so. On a special note – a good friend of mine, Carrie (love you babe) is over in Cambodia at the moment working out of Phnom Penh helping kids and young adults with medical stuff and also teaching English – she is someone I aspire to be and wish the world had more of her in it so these people were not alone in their plight.

I will think of Dari, Khieu and Sav occasionally and hope their lives improve in some small way. Three and a half pops.


3 and a Half Pops



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