.Go With the Flow

Gorgeous documentary ‘River’ celebrates the power and mystique of water 

If a movie fan has enjoyed Godfrey Reggio’s kaleidoscopic eco-documentaries (Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, et al.), then he or she will probably discover worlds of meaning in the new doc River. It works more or less the same side of the stream as Reggio’s montage-crazy art-house hits, but in a slightly subtler vein. The message is basically the same: Residents of planet Earth need to take better care of their home. There’s the added reminder of an obvious truth: In order to survive, everyone and everything needs water.

The best strategy for viewing this epic tone poem—written and directed by Jennifer Peedom and Joseph Nizeti and co-written by Robert McFarlane, with narration by Willem Dafoe—is to relax and let the sweep of natural imagery wash away all objective analysis. Resist the urge to rationalize until the sermon floats to the surface in the last reel. Let the waters take control. Go with the flow. 

The dazzling cinematography—by Yann Arthus-Bertrand, Ben Knight, Peter McBride and Renan Ozturk—visits seemingly every corner of the world in seductive rhythmic progression. Brilliantly colored schools of fish. The insides of glaciers, containing hidden streams of melt water. The misty landscape of the Plain of Bagan in Myanmar, a vision from some fantastic pipe dream.

Antique file footage of farming and irrigation along the Nile in Egypt. Devastating flood waters and disastrous droughts. The worship of the sacred power of rivers, holy tributaries that wash away sin and purify the dead, as glimpsed along the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi, India. Rice paddies, desert oases, speeded-up views of busy river traffic. “Our ability to control rivers has changed the course of human history,” says the film.

Anyone who has ever stood beside a flowing river and become entranced will recognize the sense of timelessness—the current’s restless movement, never the same as it eddies and surges. 

While the images float by, the names of legendary rivers come to mind in a stream of poetic consciousness: Chao Phraya, Missouri, Congo, Tuolumne, Thames, Seine, Rhine, Mekong, Ebro, Po, Hudson, Sumida, Huang He, Ohio, Shannon, Amazon, Yukon, Orinoco, Mersey, Merced, the Canal du Midi and the marvelous Perfume River, which flows through the ancient imperial city of Huế, Vietnam. Such is the poetic allure of the world’s rivers and their endless relationship to humanity.

“Rivers are world-makers,” declares the narrator. A river’s only purpose is to descend. Urgent information trickles into audience ears: “The amount of water in the hydrosphere has remained unchanged since the first raindrop fell. But the number of people on Earth has grown exponentially.” 

River echoes Koyaanisqatsi’s assertion (from the year 1982) that life on this planet has become unbalanced. “Today, there is scarcely a river unspanned, undammed or undiverted,” according to the film. Beautiful aerial views of checker-boarded farmlands and water-side housing developments create delusions of infinite abundance—as in the notorious case of Las Vegas.

The ecological warning signs of impending doom—toxic algae blooms, suffocating masses of plastic waste, etc.—are inescapable. But so is the reality that the natural world holds the answers to most, if not all, the human-created problems that threaten life. In light of this past winter’s much-discussed proliferation of atmospheric rivers, bringing too much of a good thing in too short a time, it’s important to note, according to River, that sky rivers hold more water than all the world’s streams, lakes and oceans combined. 

River, an Australian production under the banner of New York’s Greenwich Entertainment, opens in theaters on Earth Day, April 22. It carries on the Save-the-Earth environmental impulse with production values that surpass even Reggio’s “wow”-inspiring documentaries. 

In addition to the splendiferous visuals, the film’s musical accompaniment—by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, Australian composer Piers Burbrook de Vere, Richard Tognetti and William Barton—soars majestically above the spectacle. The effect is overwhelming. Try to see River on the largest screen, with the best sound available. 

In theaters

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