River Invites Viewers to Think Downstream

River, the latest collaboration between Jennifer Peedom, director, writer and co-producer and co-founder of Stranger Than Fiction, and John Smithson, producer and co-founder and creative director of Arrow Pictures, takes viewers on a sweeping visual and musical journey across the globe, showcasing some of the world’s waterways and humanity’s relationship with them.

The film serves as a sort of follow-up to Peedom and the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s 2017 documentary Mountain, which became the highest grossing Australian documentary in box-office history. After its phenomenal success, Peedom and the orchestra knew they wanted to make a similar film, and rivers seemed like the perfect natural feature to focus on.

“Mountains are not particularly susceptible to our harm in the way that rivers are,” Peedom notes. “It really struck me that rivers have shaped humanity in ways that I had not fully understood when I embarked on this film. They are the thing that keeps us alive. Obviously, we couldn’t live without fresh water. Yet, what we are doing to the world’s rivers is pretty shocking.”

When searching for a documentary concept, you need a central conflict. “In this case, the impact that we’re having on the world’s rivers—which ultimately is shooting ourselves in the foot—seemed like a really interesting conflict,” Peedom says.

Peedom and Smithson had been searching for a project they could work together on following their fruitful collaboration on the 2015 BAFTA-nominated documentary Sherpa. “He’s got a lot of editorial rigor,” Peedom says of Smithson. “He’s got a really good story head. He really understands narrative structure, which is so important in documentary.”

Smithson agrees that he’s very story-driven, and Peedom’s previous film Mountain and River are both “very different from films I’ve normally done because they’re that hybrid of amazing images, the music [and] the words. They really take you on an incredible visual and sound journey with a mixture of the music, the effects and the words.” For him, it was a creative challenge, and one that he was more than willing to take up. “It just felt like she, dominantly a director, and me, a producer, worked really well together,” he says.

In particular, “I really enjoyed [when] we would spend a lot of time discussing how to shape the film and give it a story arc and make it an immersive journey through space and time, spanning six continents, merging this incredible cinematography and brilliant archive,” Smithson says.

Good communication was essential for the making of River, as the very first day of preproduction was also the first day of Australia’s first Covid-19 lockdown, which essentially prevented anyone from leaving or visiting the country. 

“Once we knew we couldn’t go anywhere, we needed to bring people to us and work in a different way,” Peedom says. They reached out to cinematographers around the world to access their libraries of footage, which they had either shot for themselves or for another project that didn’t end up using them. They also commissioned shots specifically for the film from these cinematographers and sourced space photography to use in time lapses that demonstrate rivers’ changes over time.

“We were putting a lot of trust in a lot of people and working remotely,” Peedom notes. “I didn’t go anywhere for the entire shoot. For a director, that’s obviously not the ideal way to make a film, but there was something really great about that.” One particular positive was “I didn’t burn any fly miles,” something that runs parallel to the film’s environmental stance. And “people worked in their communities. People shot in their own backyards.”

In addition to the stunning visuals sourced from around the world, the music, too, played a pivotal role in the film. “Often when you see a movie, the music’s there, but it’s beneath everything,” Smithson says. “And often really good music, you’re almost not aware of it. Here, the music really is in the foreground. It’s one of the key elements that drives the film along.”

Richard Tognetti, artistic director of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, composed music for River just as he did for Mountain. Several years ago, he had worked with Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood on a live performance piece called Water. “They performed it only a couple of times,” Peedom notes. “But we were able to use elements of that amazing [piece].” 

Additionally, Indigenous musician William Barton contributed to the film’s score. River was shown to him, “and he basically said, ‘I’d love to respond to this in the way that it made me feel,’” Peedom says. “He did a lot of improvisation, and it was really moving. It was a beautiful way to work. Inviting his honesty and authentic response to the story was great.”

Through the combination of stunning aerial footage and sweeping musical numbers, Peedom and Smithson hope that viewers will begin to think about rivers in a different way. The documentary shows you “how they got there, their importance, their fragility, their vital part of our life on the planet,” Smithson notes.

One of the most crucial messages of the film is that “‘to think like a river means to dream downstream in time,’ and this idea of being a good ancestor,” Peedom says. “Our actions in the present have a profound impact down the stream.” And not just in relation to the impact on rivers, but in terms of our actions with regard to our treatment of the planet in general. “Even in a political sense, we have moved into short-term election-cycle thinking,” Peedom observes. “Hopefully, what the film does is invite people to slow down and take a slightly different point of view and think more downstream.”