“A River Changes Course” offers an impressionistic portrait of life among three rural Cambodian families over a two-year timespan. Pollution, clear-cutting and other typical developing-nation woes are making their livelihoods more difficult, though those causes aren’t spelled out here, and that lack of contextualizing makes this verite feature best viewed by those already familiar with the country’s recent history and politics. Still, Kalyanee Mam’s graceful docu should get plenty of fest travel and lure select broadcast sales.
Each group of subjects lives in a distinct natural environment that traditionally provided locals with the means for self-sufficiency, until now. The Samourn family lives in northeastern mountain jungle terrain (a stunning landscape well captured by the helmer’s color lensing) whose lush bounty is being decimated by deforestation. The Maths live on the Tonile Sap River as fishermen, but fishing is slimmer and slimmer. Khieu Mok has to leave her exhausted single mother to the rice harvest alone in hopes of paying off their debts as a sweatshop worker in Phnom Penh. All this is intriguing, but the attractively assembled pic leaves too much unexplained to be truly illuminating.