Documentaries about the rapidly deteriorating environmental conditions around the world have played a crucial role in transmitting the urgency for reform to the minds of the new generations as well as some of the older ones who are more receptive to having their mind changed by scientific data. This 2021 project, narrated by the legendary Willem Dafoe, is another addition to the growing body of essential eco-documentaries.
The general debates around environmental pollution and climate change have become extremely politicised, thanks to the incessant generation of propaganda by companies whose profit margins would take a hit if environmental reforms were passed. That’s exactly why eco-documentaries are an important part of the conversation, using the visual power of the cinematic medium to present undeniable evidence.
While other famous eco-documentaries such as Chasing Ice have explored the catastrophic consequences of our planet’s glaciers that are melting, River focuses on what happens afterwards. This latest effort by Jennifer Peedom and Joseph Nizeti is more than an investigative effort; it is a mesmerising spiritual journey where our shaman is Dafoe.
Accompanied by an immersive score by the Australian Chamber Orchestra, River conducts a historiography of the rivers that have nourished human civilisation since the very beginning. A true audiovisual experience, Peedom overwhelms the audience’s sensory inputs with stunning footage of the movement of rivers across vast landscapes.
The screenplay for River was penned by famous nature writer Robert Macfarlane whose thoughts were verbalised by the instantly recognisable voice of Dafoe. However, many of the film’s observations come across as banal because of the screenplay’s prose poetry structure which refuses to traverse the depths of the situation for the sake of poetic economy.
Although River touches upon important subjects discussed by environmental scholars and activists, it is held back due to this inability to venture further. Eventually, the film becomes an underwhelming collection of metaphors that is strung together by the flood of high-definition footage of rivers and the moving score.
Despite all its inadequacies, River manages to ask some important questions by analysing how other cultures have revered the power of rivers while modernity has sought to contain that power. Ranging from agriculture and trade to warfare and the construction of dams, River meanders its way through the issues that are contributing to the death of rivers.
“To think like a river means to dream downstream in time,” Dafoe declares in the end. While the film itself is somewhat optimistic about halting the death march of modernity through reforms, these ominous words linger in the minds of those who cannot stop thinking about the images of those great rivers that have dried up – signifying the end of time.