A 2021 documentary film accompanied live by the Australian Chamber Orchestra with a score by Richard Tognetti including the music of Vivaldi, Mahler, Bach, Adès, Greenwood, et al

Cinematography by Renan Ozturk

Directed by Jennifer Peedom

Australian Chamber Orchestra

William Barton, vocals and didgeridoo

Richard Tognetti, director and violin

Reviewed by: Brian Barford

Reviewed: 28 October, 2022
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Four years ago the Australian Chamber Orchestra scored a big success with its accompaniment to Jennifer Peedom’s film Mountain (2017) at the Barbican Hall. Now the ensemble tried to repeat the success with Peedom’s new film River (2021) but to more mixed effect.

In this 75-minute documentary, shown in modified form for live performance, most of the elements were the same – a commentary by gnarly-voiced Willem Defoe, staggering camerawork and skilful montages, a rich colour palette and an exhilarating and eclectic soundtrack. Part of the problem is the commentary written by Peedom and Robert McFarlane which is bland and full of sweeping generalisations. Another problem is that the rivers themselves are never identified, although one can guess that the Ganges features significantly. The viewer wants much more specific information on the rivers featured, especially in the closing section where a dam is dynamited and an unnamed river’s floodplain is restored.

Nevertheless, it was still an exhilarating experience to watch on a big screen with live orchestra.  Principal photographer Renan Ozturk has brought off some astonishing shots such as of canoes descending waterfalls and uses the latest drone technology to show a range of jaw-dropping and revealing vistas. This is supplemented by skilfully assembled archival footage of dam construction. Shocking images of rivers of plastic waste and limitless amounts of dead fish show the environmental consequences of dams altering floodplains and one of the themes to emerge is the cost to nature of huge dam-building projects that effect the natural flow of rivers. As the film progresses it takes on a more abstract and slightly trippy quality redolent of the American experimental cinema collaborations of Godfrey Reggio/Philip Glass (Koyaanisqatsi, 1982) and Ron Fricke/Michael Stearns (Baraka, 1992).

One of the major bonuses of the live performance was hearing the voice of the Indigenous vocalist, and didgeridoo player, William Barton, which was both rich and keening whilst blending well with the string sound. Tognetti and the Orchestra were on top form throughout. The Australian film composer Piers Burbank de Vere and Tognetti offered some linking music, often with Barton’s voice, and provided some pulsing rock with turbulent timpani in the Globalisation section.

As usual, the ACO played standing, which may have obscured the sightlines for some of those nearest the stage, and the lights were down save for occasional spotlighting and other colour effects.  There was an athleticism about the playing that matched the subject, and the string sound was bold and vivid.   

It may have been a variable film but it was a memorable evening saved by excellent playing and a charismatic vocalist. Both sombre and uplifting in turn, it raised the essential questions of how sensible we are being in our stewardship of the planet and how we treat the world’s waterways. As Willem Defoe’s commentary said several times – are we being good ancestors?

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