Nature documentaries tend to fall into one of two camps. Either they seek to awe us with the splendour and richness of the natural world, or they sound the alarm about how human activity is jeopardising that splendour and richness. It’s a tricky balance: you are in danger of serving up visual wallpaper or beating your audience over the head for not doing enough, even as you ask them to do nothing more than sit and watch a film.
Faced with this dilemma, River seeks to do both. On the one hand, it delivers stunning landscape visuals that demand to be seen on the largest possible screen, enhanced by a stirring score from the Australian Chamber Orchestra, indigenous singer William Barton, Jonny Greenwood and Radiohead. There are riverscapes of every description, from every corner of the world and at every scale, from fine grains of silt to satellite images that resemble abstract art. There are also moments of white-knuckle action, such as an unbelievably long drone shot careering down a glacier as it transitions into a raging river to a rousing Bach accompaniment.
But – and river metaphors are almost impossible to avoid here – River has a direction and a destination. As well as the physical reality of rivers, the film charts humanity’s evolving relationships with them, “from mystery to mastery to almost an amnesia”, as the writer Robert Macfarlane puts it. His sparse, reflective prose is recited by Willem Dafoe, with his trademarked gravelly gravitas. The film also delivers some mind-blowing facts: China’s Three Gorges dam, we are told, is so vast, it has actually slowed the speed of the Earth’s rotation, to the extent our day is now 0.06 microseconds longer.
“That line between sentimentality and polemic – that was the constant topic of conversation in the edit,” says Jennifer Peedom, River’s co-director and driving force. She can’t really classify her film or, in fact, herself. “There are plenty of amazing activist film-makers out there, and it’s just not what I do,” she says from her home in Sydney. “There are also a lot of amazing video artists out there, but I’m not one of them.” She hesitates to even call herself a director, describing her role as more like a “conductor”, bringing together a team of extraordinary collaborators.
The formula was set with River’s predecessor: Mountain, which examined humankind’s obsession with mountaineering through a similar mix of the scenic and the cerebral. Mountain began as a commission for a concert movie by the Australian Chamber Orchestra (and its conductor, Richard Tognetti). They approached Peedom on the strength of her previous films, especially 2015’s Sherpa, a critique of the Everest-climbing industry, filmed during what turned out to be one of the worst disasters in the mountain’s history. “I saw it as a really interesting creative challenge,” says Peedom of the ACO’s commission, “But I said: ‘If we’re going to do this, I wanted to make something that would work in the cinema.’”
That’s when Peedom turned to Macfarlane, whose 2003 book Mountains of the Mind she had read enthusiastically. “She just approached me out of the blue and said: ‘I read this book and I want to make a film about all that it says and more besides,’” Macfarlane recalls. He couldn’t refuse, even if it meant paring down his 320-page book to an 800-word script. “It did feel, at times, like climbing a very exposed route in the mountains,” he says.
It was a similar story with Dafoe. Peedom didn’t know the actor; she just loved his work and his voice, and had a sense that he would appreciate what they were trying to do. “The footage was stunning and the text compelling,” says Dafoe. “It was an unusual project and as a climber, Jen had a personal connection to mountains.”
Peedom is as intrepid physically as she is creatively. Most of her work to date has involved mountaineering and other perilous pursuits. “I climbed above 8,000m probably three years in a row,” she says, casually, at one point, “but even then I wouldn’t have called myself a mountaineer.” She grew up in an “outdoorsy” family near Canberra, she explains: cross-country skiing, rock climbing, swimming. When she was starting out, she happened to move in with a house full of New Zealander mountaineers. “I ended up just getting a foot in the door in that world and then discovered that my body worked really well at altitude. I had good endurance; I used to be a runner and a triathlete. And I had the camera operating skills, so that’s sort of how I began my film-making career.”
Now that she has a family she doesn’t put herself in danger so much, she says. Although the last time she said that was just before she went off and made Sherpa. “I didn’t go higher than base camp, but then the very next year, exactly where my camp was got swept away by an avalanche.”
Mountain became the highest-grossing Australian documentary of all time, so River was really a case of getting the team back together. But some things were different. On a practical level, the week after the team were ready to get going, Covid struck, and Australians were unable to travel for what would turn out to be nearly two years. “We made the whole film barely leaving the edit suite,” says Peedom. Fortunately, there is now a global community of dedicated landscape film-makers whom she and River’s co-director, Joseph Nizeti, could call on. Amateurs and professionals (including French aerial specialist Yann Arthus-Bertrand) contributed existing material or shot new footage for them.
That spectacular shot tumbling down the glacier, for example, was the work of a young drone cameraman, Ralph Hogenbirk, in Norway. “The skill and the quality of drone piloting in the years between making Mountain and River had just gone off the scale,” says Peedom. “It takes a huge amount of practice to get that good. They practise and they crash, and they practise more.” This one got his drone back at the end, she reassures me.
There was another big difference this time round: subject-wise, mountains and rivers are not at all the same. While mountains are relatively remote, inert and indestructible, rivers are the opposite. “Rivers run through us,” says Macfarlane. Human civilisation began with them – Mesopotamia literally means “between two rivers”, most of the world’s cities are built on their banks and now, of course, human activity threatens them. “A river is an easily injured, even easily killed, thing,” says Macfarlane. “There’s that WH Auden line from 1953: ‘A culture is no better than its woods’. Right now, it feels like a culture is no better than its rivers.”
Dafoe agrees: “I grew up in a paper-mill town on the Fox River in Wisconsin, USA. It was horribly polluted and when I fished there as a kid you would catch inedible fish often, with mutations and deformations.” A clean-up operation on the Fox has been going on since the 1970s but contamination levels are still high. “Certainly, as I grow older, you see things from your childhood that you assumed were indestructible or renewable become destroyed or compromised,” says Dafoe. “Until we change, we are all just whistling as we pass the graveyard.”
River finds some hopeful notes to end on, however. Not least the subject of dams, which affect far more than just the Earth’s rotation. They can be beneficial in regulating water supply and generating electricity, but they block off nutrient-rich silt, causing economic and ecological harm further downstream. “Dams achieve what should be impossible; they drown rivers,” as the film puts it. In the developed world at least, the wisdom of using dams is now being reconsidered, and River includes some spectacular footage of dams in Colorado and Estonia being destroyed. “The good side is that a river heals itself incredibly quickly,” says Macfarlane. “Life’s readiness to pour back, in a riverine context, is really exciting. And we saw that again and again.”
As well as providing mind-boggling visuals, dam destruction could be a metaphor for where humanity’s relationship with nature is at right now.
Beyond immediate environmental concerns, River is a plea for “thinking like a river”, as Macfarlane puts it, in the sense of “downstream, deeper-time, responsibility-taking” in the long term. Macfarlane has supported numerous campaigns for river health and access personally, including a declaration of rights for the River Cam last year. “As the broader political context around rivers suggests, that agitation is happening and has to happen.”
This is where culture has a role to play, although if a film-maker hopes to reach a substantial audience with an environmentally themed documentary, there are rapids to navigate, political as well as commercial. “The conscious decision I’ve made in my work is to tread lightly,” says Peedom. “Because we live in such divisive times, the minute you get a little bit too political you might have lost half the audience. The idea is to give an audience an encounter with nature that just shifts their understanding in some small way, and might just cause them to think differently.”