River. Rated E. 75 minutes, 5 stars
Back in my arthouse cinema days, when you wanted to pay the staff on a quiet week, a sure-fire Friday late-night cinema filler was always Powaqqatsi and its cinematic sister Koyaanisqatsi, that combined Godfrey Regio's vision, Ron Fricke's cinematography and the music of Phillip Glass.
The films had a lot to say about the world and the people who live in it, but also for those patrons who came in absolutely reeking of the wacky tobaccy, it was visual bulimia of the best kind.
I would not only put former Canberra girl Jen Peedom's River in the same category as those two films, I'd honour her by saying her film is as good, as worthy of adoration and cult status.
River is a meandering film that makes its way narratively down a number of streams, taking us from top of the catchment to bottom of the catchment, from mountain to ocean, from urban environment to the pollution and destruction downstream.
It is natural history, it is social commentary and it is poetry.
That sounds like a lot, and it sounds like it could be pretentious as all get-out, but the recipe comes together just perfectly.
As the film opens, some black and white behind-the-scenes camerawork shows performers from the Australian Chamber Orchestra setting up chairs and sound-testing their equipment, and for the rest of the film, that group play to the visuals. The music is present throughout and while I'm keen to know whether the visuals came first and the score was married to it, or the score existed for the editor to cut to, I don't want to read too much about the filmmakers' process. I just really enjoyed the experience.
The ACO's director, Richard Tognetti, is responsible for the score, working alongside Piers Burbrook de Vere and Indigenous musician William Barton, and the inclusion of voice, Barton's voice, as an instrument adds a timbral resonance. They marry original work and arrangements of Bach, Vivaldi and a handful of the old favourites, as well as the occasional Radiohead number.
Overlaying the music is the narration by actor Willem Dafoe, sometimes spoken-word performance, sometimes good science communication. Dafoe is reading words written by Peedom, Robert Macfarlane and Joseph Nizeti, who also shared co-director credit with Peedom.
The visuals are harvested from a passel of cinematographers who were all stuck at home during COVID and more than willing to share their footage catalogues as they were to head out to catch new footage for the film.
One scene early in the film shoots a glacial river from above and the camera follows it kilometres downstream, down a seemingly endless mountainside to an idyllic Alpine valley and it was an exhilarating piece of camerawork.
There is beauty in the camerawork, and there is ugliness too. Man doesn't come out too well in this film, and nor does he deserve to. There's a clever marrying of our damming of water systems with satellite imagery of growing urban landscapes that mainly show the water in those landscapes completely disappearing. But there is hope too, with the film's later scenes concerning the decommissioning of a handful of dams and the effect on their landscapes as trapped rivers flow free once again.
River is the second film in a proposed trilogy by Peedom and her producing partner Jo-anne McGowan after 2017's Mountain.
River also happens to be the name of my new Doberman puppy, and she is as beautiful and destructive as anything Peedom has captured on film.
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