“When you really love what you’re doing, when you really care about what you’re doing, you don’t even have to exhort confidence, it’s just who you are. It’s just being.”
— Kalyanee Mam on She Does podcast
Pulitzer Center grantee Kalyanee Mam speaks with She Does podcast producers Elaine Sheldon and Sarah Ginsburg about her journey into journalism and what it means to report on the environment and its human stories.
Listen to the full podcast. Below are interview highlights from the She Does website that supplement the podcast.
Kalyanee Mam is a documentary filmmaker whose work focuses on the preservation, the meaning, and the importance of home. She was raised in the U.S. but was born in Cambodia, generating an ongoing desire to explore the notion of home and displacement, specifically in Cambodia. Her first feature, A River Changes Course, won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at Sundance in 2013. Her 2014 short, Fight For Areng Valley, was featured as a New York Times Op-Doc. Kalyanee is currently working on her second feature, The Fire and the Bird's Nest, which tells the story of a Cambodian family fighting to protect their homeland from a proposed hydro-dam project. We talk about the upsides of insecurities, drastically changing your life plan, learning how to ride a bike, learning how to use a camera, learning how to forget about the camera, and most importantly, having compassion for this planet and the humans that inhabit it.
Name: Kalyanee Mam
Current City: Guerneville, CA
Born: January 1977
She Does producers Elaine Sheldon & Sarah Ginsburg: What are you listening to now?
Kalyanee Mam: "Only the Lonely", The All Time Greatest Hits of Roy Orbison
SD: What film piece of media changed you?
KM: I recently finished reading a book called "Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants," by Robin Wall Kimmerer, a biologist and member of the Potawatami tribe. I discovered her work while listening to an interview on "To the Best of Our Knowledge." I love wild mushrooms and foraging for them and she described the most amazing phenomenon captured in one single Potawatami word: puhpohwee, which translates to "the force which causes mushrooms to push up from the earth overnight." I thought this was just the most beautiful thing. No Western scientific word exists to describe this inexplicable force. And here was a Potawatami word that captured it so eloquently. There are limits to our scientific knowledge that can be complimented with indigenous knowledge and a perspective of the world that brings animism, spirit, and life to plants, animals, and all creatures that exist.
SD: Who is your career role model?
KM: There are so many people I admire for their work and contributions to a better understanding of our place in the world and how we can live with more humility and respect for nature. Robin Wall Kimmerer, Barry Lopez, John Muir are some of the names that come to mind. However, the most important thing I've learned from each of them is to admire and learn from the teachings of our ancestors - the plants and animals that have come before us and hold within their way of living the key to understanding life itself. So I've always admired, from my very first hikes in the Sierras, the grace and elegance of the foxtail pine, a rare pine endemic only to the subalpine forests of California's Sierra Nevada. I imagine this pine being alive for hundreds of years witnessing without judgment, the changes of terrain and season, of weather and storms, bending without breaking, and just being.
SD: What is a tool you can't live without?
KM: My kitchen knife and dutch oven. Two things I literally can't live without and that bring me absolute pleasure. Cutting and slicing vegetables, throwing them into the pot, and then straight into the oven to be surprised by a complete meal only a few hours later. There must be a Potowatami word that describes the magic of that delicious transformation!
SD: How do you drink your coffee/tea?
KM: I usually start my morning with my own tea blend of peppermint, chamomile, lemongrass, ginger, and turmeric. And then a shot of espresso with frothy steamed milk!
SD: What's your spirit animal?
KM: There are so many animals I would love to be depending on my mood and the time of year - a black bear in the autumn and winter, hibernating in front of a fire with a cup of hot chocolate, or a hummingbird in the spring, sampling the sweet nectar of every flower, or a wild mountain goat hobbling up the mountains in the summer.
SD: Any updates since we interviewed you?
KM: I'm currently working on my second feature documentary about the life of Reem Sav See, an indigenous Chong woman from Areng Valley in Southwest Cambodia, and the ancestral stories she and her people tell that compel them to protect their cultural and natural environment. The film is called The Fire and the Bird's Nest and I just completed by second production trip at the beginning of the Summer. I am also partnering with Mother Nature Cambodia to implement an environmental media project to help expand public debate about conservation and development in Cambodia. The project is being funded by MacArthur’s Conservation and Sustainable Development Program. We plan to release bi-weekly, short and thought provoking videos on social and traditional media and eventually screen The Fire and the Bird's Nest.
Produced by Elaine Sheldon & Sarah Ginsburg
Sound design by Billy Wirasnik
Illustration by Christine Cover
Transcription by Alijah Case
Clips Featured in Show:
Documentaries | Cambodia From 1975 To 1979 Controlled By Khmer Rouge
Khmer Rouge Song: 17 April 1975
A River Changes Course - Feature Film (2013)
Fight For Areng Valley - Short Film (2014)