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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN SINGING)
SIEGEL: This is a classroom in Cambodia. A teacher is leading a room packed with grade-schoolers through an arithmetic drill in the Khmer language. They hold up each hand, one at a time, displaying all five fingers. Five and five make 10. This is one of the rare, upbeat, hopeful scenes in Kalyanee Mam's new documentary film "A River Changes Course," a film that was honored at this year's Sundance Film Festival.
The movie follows three young Cambodians whose lives are being overturned by modernization. Like many other Cambodians who live off the land or the water, the crush of modernization is driving them away from traditional livelihoods. Kalyanee Mam was born in Cambodia and came to this country as a child. And she joins us from San Francisco. Welcome to the program.
KALYANEE MAM: Thank you, Robert.
SIEGEL: And I want you first to explain the title of this excellent documentary, "A River Changes Course," since in Cambodia, a river literally changes course every year.
MAM: That's exactly right. There's a river called the Tonle Sap River. It changes course twice a year, and the reason for that is because of the flow from the Mekong River. So I chose this for the title of the film because the changing lives of the people in Cambodia, because of modernization and the development that's taking place in the country.
SIEGEL: Yeah. One of the people you follow is Sari Math, a young man whom we first meet fishing with his father. He ultimately has to leave that job and he goes to work on what I gather is a cassava plantation owned by the Chinese. And in one scene, you talk to him and we hear him reflecting. He's a young man but he's talking about money. We all search for it until we find it, he says...
SARI MATH: (Foreign language spoken)
SIEGEL: ...until we're old, but we can't keep it with us forever. We make money and then it's gone, whether you're a fisherman or a slave of the Chinese. What a bleak view of life from this young man.
MAM: It was really shocking to me when he said those things. I remember meeting Sari when he was only 14 years old, and this was in 2008. And when I first met him, you know, I just completely fell in love with him. He was this young, you know, vivacious boy, like any other 14-year-old. He brought me to his village and he took down the Quran, you know, from the rafters of the floating mosque in his village, and he started reciting from it.
And then he told me the story of his family and of his life and their struggles that they were going through, but also the story of his dreams and what he wanted to do with his life, the education that he wanted to get and how he wanted to help support his family. And I thought to myself, you know, I need to follow the story of this boy. I need to find out what will happen to him. And it just shocked me. He was only 17 years old when he said those words. And it was as if, you know, the world had fallen around him.
SIEGEL: He's a member of what is a minority Muslim population in Cambodia and his father works the water and fishes.
SIEGEL: And I gather the catch gets worse and worse.
MAM: Yeah. The fishing in Cambodia has really declined in the last few years for several reasons. Because of the fishing concessions that have been granted to large companies by the government to fish in the waters and because of the hydroelectric dams that are being built upstream along the Mekong River.
SIEGEL: You also follow a woman named Sav Samourn, who farms and her little kids actually dig wild potatoes out of the ground of a jungle hillside. She's a member of an indigenous minority group?
MAM: Yes, she is. She belongs to the Jarai community. And this is one of 24 indigenous ethnic groups that exist in Cambodia today. Many of the groups are under attack right now because of the logging that's taking place in Cambodia.
SIEGEL: There's a very, I think, very wonderful kind of mixed scene at the end in which we hear - we're hearing the sound of a rice mill that she's acquired...
SIEGEL: ...with the produce of the cashew harvest.
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SAV SAMOURN: (Foreign language spoken)
SIEGEL: And she explains that they're able to actually make some money by renting out use of the rice mill. But then she talks about her environment that's disappearing. I love the land and the forests, she tells you...
SIEGEL: These days, almost all the trees and forests have disappeared. I'm scared we have no more land or forests to run to. And at one point, she even told you, we used to be afraid of animals here in the jungle. Now, there are no more animals. We're afraid of people who are going to destroy the forest. So, which is it? Is she losing her life to deforestation or has she, wisely buying the rice mill, figured out a way to beat it?
MAM: You know, it's really interesting. There's this contradiction in our lives right now where we are trying to understand where we stand. Should we preserve and conserve land and the forests, the natural resources that belong to us, or should we move forward and develop and, you know, acquire technology? And I don't think that those two things are really contradicting of one another. I think that that technology can bring opportunities and technology can also bring opportunities to conserve and protect our environment and our forest.
SIEGEL: But as we see in this film, the life of a fisherman's family, let's say, is not easy. These kids are not all going through grade school, and the farming that Sav Samourn does is - it is very traditional, but I don't know that those little kids of hers are going to learn to read and go to school at the rate she's going. Does one end up pleading for lifestyles that are inevitably dead ends in the 21st century?
MAM: Their life is really a struggle. It's really difficult. And I think what they really want is something different. They actually want to change their lives, they actually want an education. They want to move forward and they want to have what we have. You know, the other woman that I followed - her name is Khieu - she left the countryside to work in the - come work in the garment factories in Phnom Penh.
You know, there's a moment in the film that really, you know, struck me, too, and that's when she spoke about the factories coming to her village, and how she craved and wanted the electricity and all the lights, you know, and she wants everything that we have.
SIEGEL: So that she could stay in the village and be a factory worker there rather than have to leave and go to Phnom Penh.
MAM: That's exactly it, Robert. She just wants to be able to live with her family and be with her family. And the solution that she found was that, instead of her going away and going to the factory, the factory would actually come to her. When I first heard her say that, I was really shocked. I couldn't understand why I was so shocked, and then I realized that I come from a very Western, very privileged background.
Yes, I fled the Khmer Rouge. Yes, I came from Cambodia. But I've been given this opportunity in the United States to have this great education and to have these opportunities, so I understand what would happen if the factory came to her village. But she doesn't understand. She can only see what the opportunities will bring. She doesn't understand the consequences.
And in many ways, you know, Khieu actually, I think, represents all of us. You know, I think all of us are living in a deep well, where we don't really understand the consequences of our actions. We may understand what would happen if a factory came to her village but we may not fully comprehend what could happen if we continue to drive every day, you know, if the whole planet is covered with cars and we continue to be dependent on fuel and oil and so forth.
SIEGEL: Kalyanee Mam, thank you very much for talking with us about your film, "A River Changes Course."
MAM: Thank you.
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