River Review – Murky Waters Don’t Run So Deep


Not even Willem Dafoe’s narration can save this meandering documentary with tired colonial overtones.

Flowing like an audacious blend of spectacular cinematography, classical music and poetic narration, Jennifer Peedom and Joseph Nizeti’s River aims to restore our reverence for the beauty and fragility of our planet’s arteries.

As with Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 time-lapse odyssey, Koyaanisqatsi, what lies in the grey area between nonfiction and audiovisual abstraction is cinema’s artistic ability to portray the horrors of industrial and racial capitalism. In River, the waters soon turn murky as context is largely omitted in favour of exquisite yet repetitive aerial imagery depicting astonishing natural landscapes, tidal currents, and elemental forces.

There’s an ill-fitting, if not alienating quality to Peedom and Nizeti’s choice of pairing footage of heterogenous Indigenous peoples with the music of Bach and Vivaldi – the sonic embodiment of western high culture. It points towards a historical fixation that the Western world has with “primitivism” – one that fosters a utopian longing for a pre-industrial way of life through a return to nature.

Tangibly distant and ostensibly objectified, these peoples’ rituals and traditions become as abstract as the film’s airborne cinematography. In his narration, Willem Dafoe asks us to ponder, “As we have learned to harness the power of rivers, have we forgotten to revere them?”, to which I raise, “As we have learned to condemn colonial violence, have we forgotten to respect those most affected by it?”

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Published 17 Mar 2022

Tags: Jennifer Peedom Joseph Nizeti River Willem Dafoe


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