Speaking For The Trees


Midway through Kalyanee Mam’s documentary film Lost World, a young woman named Vy Phalla tours Singapore’s massive Gardens By the Bay, a tourist attraction built on reclaimed land that was in part formed by sand dredged and exported from Phalla’s home in southwestern Cambodia. “If this were real, imagine how beautiful it would be!” she exclaims.

This tension between the built and the natural, between development and subsistence, was at the heart of a recent East-West Center Southeast Asia in Transition webinar, “Chronicling Transitions: Documentarians, Storytellers and Writers.” The presentation brought together three artists—Mam, Emily Hong, and Tosca Santoso—to discuss how their disparate works deepen the understanding of major economic and sociocultural shifts now occurring in Cambodia, Myanmar and Indonesia. (Watch video of the discussion.)

Environmental rupture

Mam fled the Cambodian civil war with her family when she was two years old. She returned as an adult to make two films—A River Changed Course (2013) and Lost World (2018)—with a third currently in the works.

“I’ve been returning to Cambodia for over two decades now to understand the devastating history that we went through,” said Mam, who describes her process as being a “story-listener” as well as a storyteller. “All of us had been displaced during the Khmer Rouge. But now Cambodia was trying to transition into another economy, and there was another rupture happening that I felt was just as devastating: The total devastation of the forest, total devastation of land for industrial agriculture, and the building of dams that are affecting the flow of water into the Tonlé Sap, which is the source of sustenance for us in Cambodia.”

Dam-building along the 2,700-mile Mekong River—which transits China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam—has wrought wide-ranging impacts, including in Tonlé Sap, home one of the most productive freshwater fisheries in the world. While these dam projects have made mainstream news, other developments are lesser-known.

In Lost World Mam focusses on sand dredging. According to the United Nations’ Comtrade database, between 2010 and 2016 (the most recent year available), Singapore imported more than 69 million tons of sand from Cambodia, including from the mangrove forests that surround Vy Phalla’s home on the island of Koh Sralau. “In this community people depend on the mangrove forest for their livelihood, their sustenance,” said Mam. “For years now companies have come to dredge in the forest—they’re taking land from someone’s home to build casinos and gardens … extravagant things that aren’t necessary and are completely uprooting people’s lives.”

Rock ‘n’ roll resistance

While some of the same conditions exist in Myanmar, Emily Hong’s storytelling takes a very different approach. Hong, an assistant professor of Visual Studies and Anthropology at Haverford College, has spent the last fifteen years working in the border region between Thailand and Myanmar. She is currently in post-production on a feature-length film titled Above and Below the Ground, which looks at resistance to construction of the Myitsone Dam in Myanmar’s Kachin State.

Hong, a Korean-American who first connected with Burmese activists in New York during the 2007 “Saffron Revolution,” describes her process as pushing back against the colonial underpinnings of both anthropology and documentary filmmaking. To do so, she works with indigenous activists and artists to create narratives honoring the traditions of her subjects … though not necessarily using stories or media that are themselves traditional.

As an example, Hong showed a clip that inspired her own work: A music video for Blast, a Kachin rock band that is featured in Above and Below the Ground. The title for this particular video translates as ‘natural resources,’ Hong explained, noting that the subject of the film is the need for indigenous control of these resources. “This Kachin music video is what sparked local resistance to a dam project,” she said, “which eventually led to the country’s first nationwide environmental movement.”

Love amid loss

Tosca Santoso made his living as a journalist for more than 30 years, and is well known in Indonesia as a founder of the country’s first national independent radio station, Kantor Berita Radio (KBR). Santoso now practices sustainable coffee farming in Sarongge, a West Java village three hours by car from Jakarta.

When it came to writing about deforestation, Santoso chose to create a work of historical fiction named for the town: Sarongge (2012), a love story between Karen, an environmental activist who travels the country assessing the damages of logging, and Husin, who remains close to home, working with local farmers on reforestation projects. 

“The story is based on what happened in Indonesia, especially during the “new order” period from 1965 to 1998, which was the most massive deforestation in Indonesian history,” Santoso said. “So I wrote the novel to counter, and also to document, that loss. But sometimes readers, especially youth who are interested in the forest, will read the story and then want to know about the work I do with farmers in the village now.”

Mam, Hong and Santoso all agreed on the value of more intimate, personalized storytelling. “I realized how important it is to share the stories that come from our people,” Mam said of her time living with and documenting Cambodian families. “That is the way to challenge the conventional narrative.”

East-West Center

The East-West Center promotes better relations and understanding among the people and nations of the United States, Asia, and the Pacific through cooperative study, research, and dialogue. Established by the U.S. Congress in 1960, the Center serves as a resource for information and analysis on critical issues of common concern, bringing people together to exchange views, build expertise, and develop policy options.

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