"A River Changes Courses"

Sav Samourn is among struggling Cambodians profiled in new documentary. (Migrant Film / December 16, 2012)

Filmmaker Kalyanee Mam grew up with an unbridled passion for her native Cambodia. Though she was just a toddler when she and her family fled the country in 1979 and settled in Stockton, her parents would tell Mam and her siblings about the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979, tempered with stories of the country's rich culture, history and beauty.

"I always had this strong sense I wanted to return to my homeland and to understand where I came from and to understand this tragic but also beautiful history my parents talked to me about," Mam said.

She finally got the opportunity in the summer before her senior year at Yale in 1998 to work on her thesis about the endurance of the Cambodian family under the Khmer Rouge.

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"That first trip completely changed my life," said Mam, who was an attorney before she became a filmmaker. "I found this country that was so beautiful. I just fell in love with the landscape. There were so many forests and jungles and rice fields."

That wasn't the case when she returned a decade later, however. Mam was appalled when she saw the devastating effects of deforestation, overfishing and insurmountable debt.

"When I was there in 1998, we had to fly to get to the jungles in the northeastern part of Cambodia," she said. "There were no roads. Now there are clean roads not only leading to the jungles but leading to Vietnam to make it easier for them to transport the lumber. I saw all the forests being cut down and the rivers fished to extinction by fishing concessions being granted to companies. Women are being forced to leave their villages and work in garment factories so they can support their families."

In fact, Mam feels what's happening now in the country is "as terrible, as significant and as destructive to the people of Cambodia as the atrocities that were committed during the Khmer Rouge period. I felt I needed to document this now before it was too late."

So for two years Mam followed three families struggling to survive in modern Cambodia for her documentary, "A River Changes Course," which opens in L.A. on Friday after winning an award at the Sundance Film Festival.

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Mam traveled to the remote jungles of northeast Cambodia to profile young wife and mother Sav Samourn. She and her family have no access to electricity, markets or education and depend on the forests for their livelihood. But drought has caused a poor harvest and the elders of the village believe it is because of deforestation.

Mam first encountered Khieu Mok working in a crowded factory in the capital city of Phnom Penh. Mok is an example of the many young Cambodians forced to leave the countryside to go to work in the city because of crushing family debt. Mok frequently has to return home because her mother complains of not being able to handle the hard work by herself.

Sari Math's story is perhaps the most heartbreaking. When Mam first met him, Math was a lively, bright 14-year-old living with his large family in a small floating village on the Tonle Sap River in central Cambodia. But he soon had to quit school to fish the river with his father. Then, because of the dwindling fish supply, his parents sent him off to the countryside to earn money cutting down trees for a Chinese company.

"Over the course of three years he had become a young old man," Mam said. "When I first met him he told me in the film, 'I want to get an education. I want to go to school.' At the age of 17, all of those dreams were crushed by the reality of the situation — their rivers are being fished to extinction and he has no other option."

Mam recently offered to help the teen get an education.

"The organizations that we worked with to make the film in Cambodia were willing to house him and provide him with room and board," said Mam. "He said no, he couldn't do it because his parents wanted him to go and work in South Korea."

susan.king@latimes.com