Friday, October 18, 2013
A River Changes Course
Ain't nobody got time for that.
Watching Kalyanee Mam's Cambodia documentary "A River Changes Course," the winner of a World Cinema Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, I was reminded of the immortal words of Sweet Brown. Mam follows three families to illustrate her themes: one in the remote northeast mountains, where there's talk of deforestation but (as far as we can see) there's tons of greenery against the bright red-brown dirt; a fishing family whose son leaves to work on a Chinese cassava farm when, for reasons they don't understand, they're no longer able to catch enough fish (press materials attribute the decline to illegal fishing and large traps they can't afford); and a family of rice growers whose daughter leaves to work in a garment factory in the capital so she can send her wages home to them.
Sometimes an immersive style devoid of exposition works wonderfully. Not here. By plopping us down without context, we're often left with no way to respond but a shrug of the shoulders. The seamstress daughter yearns for home, but upon returning expresses hope that the government will build a bridge and bring major developments to her village. "It would be great if we could have our own Phnom Penh right here." Okay… The fishing family tells Mam that several of them have taken ill recently, and wonders whether it may be from consuming outside food. Well, is it? Everyone in the movie recites his or her litany of woe, and you may feel a certain indifference set in. Wages aren't enough? You're having financial problems? Who doesn't? Physical labor hurts? You're in some pain? Welcome to the world, babe. And it's not improper to note that not all world languages are equally beautiful. Khmer has to rank as one of the least mellifluous.