Through filming "River of Victory" about a family who lives near a garbage dump in Cambodia, two returned Mormon missionaries found that happiness isn't limited to a location.
“You can find happiness wherever you are,” noted Trevor Wright, director and producer of “River of Victory,” an International Documentary Association award-nominated documentary. “There are people everywhere and they are not defined by their circumstances.”
When serving as missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Cambodia, Wright and A. Todd Smith thought they had seen the worst of living conditions. As Brigham Young Univeristy students, they returned to the country as humanitarian workers for Cambodian Children’s Fund. They worked for several months teaching English and conducting surveys and assessing needs. After seeing the living conditions, Wright, Smith and other BYU film students decided to document the people by telling their story. The original goal was to film Scott Neeson, executive director of CCF, but things fell through and within a couple of days the premise of their film changed.
“We found this family and started filming them,” Wright recalled. “It turned out to be way more meaningful and better than we ever have planned.”
The family lived in an area that roughly translated means "river of victory." It may sound like an ideal setting, but Steung Meanchey in Cambodia is literally a dump. More than 11 acres of trash, 100 feet deep, make up the municipal landfill outside the capital city of Phnom Penh. It is in this setting viewers are introduced to Sang Ly, her husband, Ki; their 3-year-old daughter, Keo; and 18-month-old son, Sokchea. To some, the garbage dump may seem like a place of destitution, but to Sang Ly and Ki, it presents opportunity that is not available in the countryside.
Being able to pick through the trash for recyclables is the means to help Sokchea, who has been sick since birth. But it is because of the dump that he is sick. Wright’s film shows the resilience of the little family as they save money to save their son. The story of parents who, despite circumstances, are doing all they can to better the life of their children, is something many people understand.
“I feel bad for my son,” Sang Ly said as she is shown washing clothes in the dirty river. “Not that I don’t have other problems. You could write a book about them, but the only sentence that I would care about is my sick son.”
Her determination is an attribute that can be seen in many of the people at Steung Meanchey. Through observing the human condition, Wright hopes that people will see past the dump and focus on the treasures of family, relationships and sacrifice.
“We want to tell the story that these are regular people and they are real people and they care about their families,” Wright explained. “While the dump is a pretty shocking thing in and of itself, we wanted the people to come across more than just the condition they are living in.”
There are many lessons that can be learned from the film. Wright and Smith hope that people will understand that happiness is a choice and relationships are what matter.
“I remember looking at the people going, 'Well, they are not crying, they are not depressed,'” recalled Smith, cinematographer and editor. “Instead they are laughing and playing and the little kids are finding things in the garbage to make toys of.”
“Many of them get strength from the relationships,” Wright observed. He told the story of a lady who worked in the dump, hurt her leg and was not able to pick garbage. She missed it because she was not able to be with her friends.
“I think that what is truly important in life is relationships,” Smith said. “I think Cambodia taught me that.”
The film was nominated for the David L. Wolper Student Documentary Award from the International Documentary Association. According to Wright, this was the first nomination for BYU and the film was only one of two American films nominated for the award. Several hundred student films were submitted in the category.
“It’s not a story about a dump, it is a story about a family who just happens to live in a dump and how they come together and to overcome some of these things,” Wright explained. “That was kind of the driving force was meeting these people there and realizing how incredible they were. We just wanted to share that with people.”
Wright and Smith hope to continue to bring attention to the conditions in Cambodia. A film from Italy won the award, but Smith is honored “River of Victory” was recognized.
“Hopefully this (nomination) will help us get more exposure and help us get screenings,” Wright said. “The next step is to get it out there, get it seen, get it premiered and distributed so more people can see the film.”
They would also like to return to Steung Meanchey and locate Ki and Sang Ly. In 2009, the dump was relocated further outside the city, but some residents, like Ki, commute to the new landfill for work. Wright has lost contact with the family but he does know that they still live in the landfill and he hopes to find them and help them.
“You can be happy in whatever situation,” Wright said. “It doesn’t matter where you live or what your circumstances are.”
Smith agreed and noted, “Happiness doesn’t come from object and things. It comes from relationships”
Smith and his wife, Amy Leah Nelson, recently returned from Cambodia, where he is working on a new project about an orphanage. Nelson said that the dump was another way for the people to be resourceful. For example, many Cambodians who work in factories make $50 a month. To possibly make $2.50-$5 a day at Steung Meanchey is considered a great job.
“Let’s not focus on the past tragic stuff,” Smith said. “Let’s think about what is happening in the future and look at the brightness of the future.”
“Of what could happen, not what has happened,” Nelson added.