The lushness of the jungles of northern Cambodia—and of the photography of the same, shot by director and director of photography Kalyanee Mam—belies the stark choices facing the young people born into this land of rivers, rice paddies, and tiny villages: stay and fish and farm, helping their families subsist and maybe settle some debts, or head to a city like Phnom Penh, where the garment factories offer a sadly complementary life of toil. (Like the jungle, the tin-roofed shantytown in which the workers settle seems to stretch from horizon to horizon.) In the opening scenes, Mam reveals what seems like ordinary days among a population scratching out lives among great natural beauty. Her camera cuts across the river with a fishing family, right up to floating homes, and she shows us a father instructing his daughter about what to say when her teacher asks why she’s been truant so long: that it’s hard to get to a school on an island when there is no bridge.”All the young people have gone, by the truckloads,” a mother sighs, a complaint you’ll hear in American farm towns, too. Mam trails one young woman to the garment factories, where her fellow workers interviewed for the film all vow only one more year of such a miserable job. For the most part, the narrative here feels generational, representative, rather than invested in the specific incidents of specific lives. One sequence toward the end stirs great feeling: Mam herself asks a hard-toiling teenager about the dreams for a better future he shared with her just a few years before. The kid, shyly, refuses to speak of such things.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 2, 2013