Directors: Jennifer Peedom, Joseph Nizeti (Australia). Year of Release: 2022
A monochrome recording studio. We see, and hear an orchestra tuning up. If we look hard enough, we can see the craggy features of Willem Dafoe looking not unlike Lou Reed during the wrinkly years. As the orchestra starts to play, we cut to more colourful pictures of canoeists riding down a river. In the next hour or so, we will take part of a journey which is both physical – from the river’s source into the sea – and chronological, showing how humanity has developed alongside rivers.
There are interesting stories, particularly at the start, as we hear how human civilisation developed literally along the river’s edge. As production capacities rose and people started to move out of small villages, it made sense to create new cities around rivers, the main source of transport for goods and people. This need may have disappeared, but humans continued to exploit waterways, sometimes for good, sometimes not.
Damming and other interference with the “natural” flow of water can sometimes be an effective counter to drought and flooding. Just as often, the plundering of nature hat a catastrophic effect on the environment. A strength of this film is that it acknowledges the contradictory nature of our relationship with waterways. However, once the contradiction has been acknowledged, the sound science starts to descend into – excuse the specialist terminology – a load of hippie bollocks.
We are told, quite rightly, that dams have broken up communities, particularly those of indigenous populations who have little power in modern capitalist society. But no-one is really blamed for this happening, we’re just told that “we”, whoever we are, should think a bit more about being good ancestors. That humanity is somehow evil, or at the very least negligent.
This analysis is ok as far as it goes, bit without locating the real source of environmental destruction, it ends up seeing the problem as lying in dams themselves, or in “our” attempt to control nature. This makes no distinction between the dams which have destroyed farmlands and displaced native people in the Global South, and those which have prevented most of the Netherlands from disappearing under flood water.
River identifies the problem we are facing, at least in part, but is unable to offer any solution. There is certainly no sense that the problem is a system whose rapacious greed means that the environment is sacrificed for the sake of profits for a few. Instead, the film wrings its hand earnestly and seems to cry out “humans are a bit crap, aren’t they?”
In its attempt to show that Nature is good and that “We” are inherently problematic, River employs some overbearing and unconvincing anthropomorphism. Instead of angry anti-capitalism, we get a mystic pseudo-spirituality. On more than one occasion, we are urged to “think like a river”. Now, can I tell you a secret? The main reason why humans have been able to exploit nature, and never the other way round, is that rivers and the like are unable to think.
The reality of Global Warming means that we need to take a much more critical view of how Nature is being exploited in a way that threatens all our lives. Ironically, this may require more intervention to control nature, not less. A world threatened with flooding, extreme weather and rapid climate change requires an interventionist response, not one based on sitting back and chanting mantras.
Throughout the film, we are shown countless rivers, from 6 continents apparently, but none of them is named. We are not told how they are different, and how some are similar. We are shown different parts of the world and their natural features as if they were interchangeable, as if Nature were somehow all the same thing.
For all this, many of the scenes that we see are stunningly beautiful. You get why the people involved in making the film are so in awe of nature. Many of the rivers, and birds, and glaciers and who knows what else look remarkable. If this were simply a nature documentary, that is, if it could lose some of the patronising narration, it would be a superb contribution to the genre.
My home town, Bradford, was the home of Europe’s first IMAX cinema. For a while, in the early 1980s, we went to all sorts of films about nature and space, which were low on narrative but high on pretty pictures that look great projected onto a 60 foot wall. This is one of those sort of films. I don’t necessarily mean this as a criticism – the film looks spectacular, but what it looks like is often way more impressive than what it says.