Filmmaker Kalyanee Mam was born in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge regime. She was only 4 years old in 1979 when she and her family fled through the jungle to refugee camps at the Thai-Cambodian border. Eventually they were granted refugee status in the United States and made their way to California.
A lawyer before she became a filmmaker, Mam, 36, is best known as the cinematographer for the Oscar-winning documentary “Inside Job” about the global financial crisis of 2008. Now she returns to her homeland in the acclaimed documentary “A River Changes Course,” which she directed, produced, and shot. It won the 2013 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize for world cinema documentary.
The Cambodia she examines in her spare, stunning film is a very different one than the Cambodia of her early life. She found a land that is being decimated — environmentally and on a human level — by the impact of rapid development and industrialization. It was not an easy film to make. To capture the stories of three young Cambodians, she needed to trek through forests and jungles, on foot and by elephant; climb nine mountains; and film on a small unstable boat on a river.
Mam will be in Lowell on April 9, to screen the film at Showcase Cinemas Lowell. She’ll also show it at Lowell High School, where 30 percent of the students are of southeast Asian background.
Q. Did you expect to win a prize at Sundance?
A. Not at all. I don’t really dream about things like that. I don’t think it’s healthy, and it’s not my purpose. My purpose is to understand what is happening in Cambodia. You can only do something like this if you are truly interested in and curious about finding an answer.
Q. You were a lawyer before becoming a filmmaker. How did you make the transition to cinematographer?
A. On-the-job training
Q. Do you remember much about your childhood in Cambodia?
A. I only remember living in the refugee camps. I remember playing in the rain. But my parents told us many stories about the Khmer Rouge regime and instilled in us a sense of pride about our country. I had the good fortune of being forced by my parents to speak Khmer. So I had a strong understanding of Cambodian culture and traditions. But it always interested me to return to my home country. I wanted to explore that side of myself which I didn’t know so well, and that I felt made me so different. I felt I didn’t really belong in the US.
Q. And what did you find?
A. I realized that I am neither just Cambodian nor just American. I am both. I am also more than that, and have had many other experiences. Being Cambodian is something that is a big part of my life, but not the overwhelming part.
Q. Why did you decide to make this film?
A. I went back to Cambodia was 1998. It was so beautiful; I fell in love with the luscious landscape, the forest and jungles. I went back in 2008 and realized how much the country had changed. It was a complete turnaround. There were large buildings in the city, roads were being built in the jungle. Not that roads are bad, but it also meant that a lot of trees were being cut down. They built the road to transport lumber, not for the people. This meant people were being displaced. It meant industrialization was taking over the country. I began wondering how this change was impacting people’s lives and realized I needed to document what was happening. Everyone knows about the Khmer Rouge regime and about genocide, but I think a lot of people are not as familiar with the current situation.
Q. Is that because the movie-going public last left off Cambodia with the killing fields?
A. It’s because it’s become so exotic to view the history of Cambodia through the lens of genocide. It’s a lot less exotic to see it now, to see all the atrocities that are happening with regard to the environment, to all the overfishing, to the loss of natural resources, to people thrown off the land because their land is being taken from them.
Q. Your film focuses on three young people. One struggles with the impact of deforestation, another with overfishing, and another with debt. What do they have in common?
A. The common denominator is that [their] lives are changing. Their lives are being shaped by themselves, of course, but also by external forces that are forcing change. Large land concessions are being given to companies to remove people off the land. Large fishing concessions are depleting the fishing population. Construction of dams is affecting the fish flow. This is a huge issue in Cambodia. Dams are being built to generate electricity and the government says it’s for the local population, but in reality, most of the electricity would be diverted to neighboring countries like Thailand and Vietnam.
Q. Did the situation strike you as hopeless?
A. I saw a lot of people fighting for their right to remain on their land, and a lot of them are women. They’re fighting to stay in their homes. I saw women who are working in factories fighting for better wages for themselves. They are very vocal and active. We plan to travel all over the country and screen the film in villages and show it to villagers who are in the same situation. I hope it will raise enough awareness that people will feel that they need to do something more.
Q. What’s your ultimate goal for the film?
A. I think the story will help people to see how beautiful their country is. You can travel across the United States and get a sense of the lay of the land. But in Cambodia, few people have the opportunity to travel anywhere outside of their village. It’s hard to feel pride if you don’t have a full grasp of your own identity and of how your country looks.
Q. Why is it important for you to show it at Lowell High School?
A. I have more faith in young people than anyone else. I have strong memories of my time in high school and college and I was so hopeful and idealistic. I thought I could change the world. Anything I can do to offer guidance . . . about what they can to do help their home country, or here in the US would be amazing. Also a lot of Cambodian students are very artistic and maybe the film will help them to do something like this.