River, a Cinematic Love Letter to the World’s Rushing Waterways, Debuts on Earth Day
“Thousands have lived without love,” a quote from W.H. Auden appears over a reflected cloud bank. “Not one without water.”
Yet the film that follows suggests that the line between love and need winds a meandering path. The next hour and a quarter is a visual, musical and poetic love letter to rivers, which the movie depicts as a source of both basic necessities and “human dreams.”
“I don’t think you’d find anyone who didn’t love a river,” the film’s director Jennifer Peedom told EcoWatch in an interview. “I think we just innately understand their importance to our survival, but also that contact to water is an essential part of our lived experience.”
‘Rivers as Characters‘
River is the second film in a trilogy born of a unique collaboration between Peedom, co-writer and director Joseph Nizeti, the Australian Chamber Orchestra, its artistic director Richard Tognetti, producer Jo-anne McGowan, nature writer Robert Macfarlane and actor Willem Dafoe. The first, Mountain, released in 2017, became Australia’s highest-grossing documentary made in the country. River repeats Mountain’s weaving of classical and original music, stunning scenery and spare but evocative prose delivered in Dafoe’s steady voice. But unlike Mountain, which focused on terrains humans often venture to, River turned its lens on what flows to us.
In choosing a theme for a second film, the team behind Mountain originally thought of water, but decided they needed something a bit more specific. At the same time, the 2018 to 2019 mass fish die offs in Australia’s Murray Darling Basin — an event caused by a combination of drought, algae bloom and plunging temperatures that is sadly being repeated as the film opens — brought the health of rivers and waterways into sharp focus.
“We realized that rivers as characters are really interesting,” Peedom said.
There are many riparian characters in the film, from the Snake and Columbia Rivers in North America to the Ganges in India to the Darling coughing up fish corpses in Australia. And, as a river carries silt from its tributaries to the sea, their stories flowed into the creative team from 39 different countries.
“We were due to be shooting all over the world,” Peedon said. “And… the first day of pre-production was the first day of the COVID lockdowns here in Australia.
So we quickly realized that we weren’t going to be going anywhere.”
Instead, Peedom reached out to cinematographers in different spots on the globe, many of whom suddenly found themselves with canceled projects. The film was therefore formed of an international collaboration, with artists sending in both new and unused footage, such as Ralph Hogenbirk’s drone’s-eye view of ice running off a glacier, down a mountain and into a rushing torrent or Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s aerial camera work that shows rivers appear to branch out of the ocean like trees.
“It turns out there’s a lot of people around the world that are passionate about rivers,” Peedom said. “And that’s how we then began to bring the visual material together, guided by the story.”
That story was crafted by Peedom, Nizeti and Macfarlane over Zoom. While Mountain had been built around Macfarlane’s Mountains of the Mind, this time the co-authors brainstormed ideas based on copious research while Mcfarlane polished the language down to the necessary.
“I love that feeling of creating a very thin line of silk or thread which runs through the film texturally, rather than overexplaining and over dominating,” Mcfarlane said in a press release.
‘Dams: A Love Story‘
If rivers are the main characters of the film, then dams are their main antagonists.
“You could almost call it ‘Dams: A Love Story,’” Peedom said.
This thread is laced through the movie’s first spoken line: “Humans have long loved rivers, but as we have learned to harness their power, have we also forgotten to revere them?”
The film both shows and tells how dams block rivers from carrying silt down from the mountains and nourishing flood plains. It shares shocking facts, such as the finding that the world’s largest dams have held back enough water to slow the Earth’s rotation, or that there are hardly any truly wild rivers left. This is told over time-lapsed images from NASA showing the shrinking of natural pools, the expansion of urban grids and the flooding of human-constructed reservoirs.
“Dams achieve what should be impossible,” Dafoe recites, in one of Peedom’s favorite lines. “They drown rivers.”
Peedom said that you could make an entirely different documentary only about the many impacts of dams, but there is still a lesson in what she was able to include.
“I hope what you got from the film is that… rivers… enabled us to do so many things and they do hold great power, but if we harness too much of that power and don’t give enough back to the Earth, then we’re going to shoot our own selves in the foot,” she said.
But the film is not without hope, for both people and rivers. One of the most striking sequences shows the removal of the Elwha Dam in Washington state, filmed by Ben Knight and Travis Rummell, as the water bursts out of the exploded concrete, overtakes the smoke of the explosives and turns trickles into torrents.
“Rivers are fabulously self-healing if they are given the chance,” Macfarlane said in the press release.
What’s Your River?
Beyond the impacts of dams, the second most important thing Peedom said she learned making River was about the relationship Indigenous communities have to the waterways that flow through their lands. In particular, she gained insights from Indigenous Australian filmmakers who work in the Murray-Darling Basin.
“It is literally the blood in the veins,” Peedom said. “And if you think about that and then think about blocking those veins from the metaphoric damning point of view, it is really powerful.”
Peedom feels hopeful that people are starting to listen more to the Indigenous perspective and the wisdom that other cultures seem to have forgotten. Viewers of River will have a chance to do this literally when they listen to the improvised vocals of Australian Indigenous composer and didgeridoo player William Barton. Peedom recalls that Barton watched the film the night before recording, came to the studio and declared, “Here’s all the stuff I feel like saying.”
“[H]e just sang for 15 minutes and we all look around at the end of it and we’re all in tears,” Peedom said.
Three minutes of his performance appear in the film.
“(I was) connecting to my ancestral ties, to the mother country, to my experiences of going out bush as a young kid on Kalkadunga country and seeing the little water holes out there connected to emu dreaming, and to the significance of songlines,” Barton said in the press release.
While those of us who do not come from Indigenous communities may need to relearn a certain reverence for rivers, many people do understand it on a deeper level.
“There is not anyone that doesn’t feel somehow connected to a river,” Peedom said. “And there is a line in the film that I love, that is, to many people, this idea that their river is the river, and that I think is such a reflection on what they can do for us.”
For Peedom, the river is the Murrumbidgee River near Canberra, where she grew up.
“We used to do a lot of camping and trekking around there, and we used to float on big, blown up lilo tires and things down this river,” she said. “So they’re my happy memories of rivers.”
Watching the film, you will likely be reminded of your river, and what it shares with all the world’s rushing waterways.
River will debut this Earth Day in theaters in U.S. cities including Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Chicago, Washington, DC, Portland, Seattle, Philadelphia, Salt Lake City, Dallas, Cleveland, Houston, San Diego, Raleigh-Durham, Nashville, Miami, Atlanta, Cincinnati, Las Vegas and New Orleans. It is presented by Greenwich Entertainment with additional producer John Smithson and further music by Radiohead and Jonny Greenwood.