Kalyanee Mam believes her primary job is to stay out of the viewer's way as they absorb her film, "A River Changes Course." To that end there is no narration, just the sound of rice stalks being harvested, a river lapping at the edges of a floating village, and children chopping sugar cane in the jungle. The effect is to draw audiences in, as if they are in the boat rather than watching from a safe distance.
"The documentaries I love immerse me in their world and allow me to see things I have never seen before, also to figure things out for myself," she said while anxiously counting down the days to her film's Sundance premiere.
"As a filmmaker, if you are constantly telling the viewer what they should be thinking, you get in the way of the story revealing itself; you get in the way of the audience truly connecting with the stories and with the people in the stories," she said.
For Mam, an accomplished cinematographer who served as director of photography for the film "Inside Job," this project was very personal. She was born in Cambodia and, with her parents and six siblings, fled the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, ending up in a refugee camp for more than two years. The family immigrated to the United States when she was four years old.
"Growing up, I have always heard stories about that period, about my family" said Mam. "My mom told me stories you wouldn't believe.
Those stories ultimately drew her back to her roots. As a student at Yale University, Mam chose to do her senior thesis on "The Endurance of the Cambodian Family Under the Khmer Rouge." She has been traveling back and forth ever since working for the Documentation Center of Cambodia, a nonprofit NGO that is primarily devoted to recording the genocide that took place in the country under Pol Pot's rule.
On one of those trips, in 2008, Mam said she began to notice immense changes driven by industrialization and globalization and she was concerned about the families that would be displaced.
"They are cutting down the forest all over the country. In a few years probably, those families will be removed or will have to go somewhere else because of the rate of destruction of the forest."
In 2010, Mam and producer Ratanak Leng set out to document those changes by following a handful of subjects representing three major geographic places that were being affected. But finding those families, she said, was "like finding a needle in the haystack."
Specifically she hoped to work with one family in the jungle whose daily routine is being disrupted by deforestation, one on the river where overfishing is ruining traditional livelihoods, and one in the countryside where the younger generation is being forced to find work in garment factories of Phnom Penh.
To find one of those families, Mam said she had to cross a tributary of the Mekong River on a motorcycle and then travel over nine mountains.
While Mam's camera clearly documents her subjects' vulnerability to their changing environment, she also captures the rugged beauty of the country in a way that will make audiences feel as though they have walked beside her through the jungle and paddled with her toward a floating village from another era.
The loss of Cambodia's traditional agrarian culture is heartbreaking, especially when Mam learns that one particularly bright child she has been following has given up all hope of going to school and instead has decided to earn money for his family by going to work in a South Korean factory. And, she admits, there are no easy remedies.
"Even after making this film for four years, I don't have the answers or the solutions to the problems that exist in Cambodia and the world." But, she adds, "We all need to understand the problem and really discuss the issues. Then we can come up with solutions together."
Mam hopes Sundance audiences will be part of that discussion.
"A River Changes Course" screens: