Kalyanee Mam

Young Leader shares work as documentary filmmaker, telling stories of and advocating for Cambodian peoples

August 6, 2014

Award-winning filmmaker, lawyer, and born storyteller, Kalyanee Mam, a 2012 Young Leader of the French-American Foundation, is committed to combining her passion for art and advocacy to tell compelling and universal stories. Born in Battambang, Cambodia, during the Khmer Rouge Regime, she and her family fled to the refugee camps at the Thai-Cambodian border and eventually immigrated to the United States in 1981. For her debut documentary feature A River Changes Course (2013), Mam returned to her native homeland to document the struggles of three families to maintain their traditional way of life as the modern world closes in around them. The film earned several top awards, including the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and the Golden Gate Award for Best Feature Documentary at the San Francisco International Film Festival. The New York Times considered the film, “profound enough to stand on its own”, while the Los Angeles Times described the film as, "A deeply felt portrait of Cambodia...exquisite in its immediacy and agility.

Mam has since continued her work exploring the cultural and environmental changes facing the Cambodian people, producing the New York Times Op-Doc, "A Threat to Cambodia's Sacred Forests." Her new work examines the impact of the proposed Areng dam, to be constructed by Chinese hydroelectric company Sinohydro as one of 17 dams being constructed by the Cambodian government, on both the Chong people and the rich biodiversity found in the Areng Valley that would be flooded by the new construction. 

Mam has also worked as Cinematographer, Associate Producer, and Researcher on the 2011 Oscar-winning documentary Inside Job, about the global financial crisis, and as Co-Director and Co-Producer of documentary short, Between Earth & Sky (2010), about three young Iraqi refugee artists living in Syria, Jordan, and Egypt. A graduate of Yale University and UCLA Law School, Mam also served as a legal consultant in Mozambique and Iraq.


We were delighted that you joined the French-American Foundation for a special reception following a screening of your directorial feature-length debut, A River Changes Course, in June 2012. The film’s New York screening at the MoMA was but one of many stops you made while promoting the award-winning documentary, which explores the radical changes in Cambodia today that are transforming not only the country’s landscape but also the daily lives and dreams of its people. What was the reaction to this work? Here in the United States? Among fellow documentarians? In Cambodia and among those featured in your work?
The reception here in the US, abroad, and in Cambodia has been deeply heartfelt and inspiring. I'm extremely touched by how moved the audience has been by the families and their plight and how connected they feel to them. There is a universal message of family, love, beauty, and hope that many of us can relate to. In Cambodia, the people are reminded of the beauty of the natural landscape and the lives that co-exist in harmony with nature. People want to progress and move forward, but they also want to protect the country's natural treasures.

Your work explores the parallel issues of environmental decay and the rapid changes to traditional lifestyles and culture in Cambodia, which are often linked to ethnic identities? How are these two phenomena intertwined?
Many ethnic and indigenous groups in Cambodia have depended for centuries on the land, forests, and rivers for their livelihood and sustenance and spiritual inspiration. More than any other groups in Cambodia, they have a strong and deep connection to nature. When this connection is severed and families are removed from their land and forests, not only are their livelihoods impacted, but also their way of life. Their lives, so connected to nature, is an inspiration to me and I think should be for all of us. When we lose our connection to nature, in many ways, we also lose our connection to ourselves and the natural and spiritual forces upon which our lives truly depend. 

Your latest work, featured in the New York Times’ “A Threat to Cambodia’s Sacred Forests” looks at the environmental and cultural threat posed to the Areng valley by the proposed construction of the Areng dam built by Sinohydro, China’s largest hydroelectric company. What inspired this work? Is this a continuation of the work you did on A River Changes Course, or are you shifting your focus?  As opposed to A River Changes Course, which explored changes facing the Cambodian people, would you say your new work is more focused and direct in its advocacy?
I've been deeply inspired by the uprising occurring all over Cambodia today. Nearly half a million villagers and farmers in Cambodia have been displaced by nearly three million hectares of government granted land concessions to private companies. Instead of accepting their fate, the people are fighting back. I not only want to document the changes happening in Cambodia, but also how people are responding to this change, with courage.

Your family emigrated from Cambodia in 1981, seeking refuge from the Khmer Rouge Regime. As an emigrant, what does it mean to you to do this work telling the stories of those who stayed in Cambodia? Given your own personal and familial history with Cambodia, did this differ from other projects you’ve undertaken, which have taken you to the Middle East, Africa, and the United States, where you’ve spent much of your life?
My family history and the stories my parents shared with me of our escape from Cambodia definitely has an impact on the stories I tell today. I first returned to Cambodia to understand my own history. What I discovered was an opportunity to learn so much more, not just about Cambodia, but about the deeper struggles of humanity. Regardless where the stories take place, the stories I tell and want to continue to tell are of love, survival, courage, and always of hope.

The French-American Foundation addresses a number of social, economic, and environmental policy issues? What role does the documentary play in shaping public debate? What has been the greatest impact you’ve seen from your work?
We've screened A River Changes Course in schools, universities, with organizations, governmental departments in the US and in villages, communities and embassies in Cambodia. The documentary has been helpful in providing context and a human face to the social, economic, and environmental issues we are faced with.

You attended law school at the University of California – Los Angeles and began a legal career before transitioning to documentary film-making? How has your legal training and background influenced your documentary work?
All of my life experiences have shaped me to be the person I am today and my legal experience has helped me to be critical in my approach to storytelling. It has also helped me to tell stories that are not only beautiful, but also compelling.

What’s the greatest advice you would give to people interested in storytelling, advocacy, and documentary film-making?
I'm not sure if I'm in any position to offer advice. All I can say is that I've always lived my life with passion, pursuing work that I love, first and foremost, but also work that I feel will have impact. In following my passions and telling stories I love and care about, I've been lead to the place where I want to be.

You took part in the French-American Foundation’s Young Leaders program in 2011 and 2012. What did you gain from your participation in the Young Leaders program? Was there one take-away from the program, whether personal or professional, that has proven particularly valuable?
It's always a wondrous thing to meet others who are like-minded in their passion to explore, be critical, and make impact in the world we live in, even if we may differ in our path. It is this diversity that invites discussion, debate, and ultimately the impact and change we all seek.

Do you stay in contact with fellow Young Leaders? Have any contacts made through the program contributed to your documentary work?
Most definitely! I wish we all had more time to get together, but everyone from our class and beyond have been incredibly supportive.