Caroline Bâcle. Lost Rivers. New York: Icarus Films, 2013. 72 mins.
Reviewed by Nicholas Bloom
Published on H-Environment (December, 2014)
Commissioned by David T. Benac (Western Michigan University)
The short documentary film Lost Rivers features an impressive range of cities, environmental concerns, and time periods as it uncovers the lost history, and contemporary reality, of many urban river systems. As a result, the film is often “a mile wide and an inch deep” as it struggles to cover so much territory in such a short time. The film’s strengths mostly compensate for this thinness, however, making it good for students in an environmental studies, and perhaps introductory environmental history, class. The film boasts excellent camera work, smooth narration, interesting graphics, and nicely edited interviews with key figures. It is quite appealing as a film.
The film weaves together the story of five cities: London, United Kingdom; Toronto, Canada; Yonkers (New York), United States; Brescia, Italy; and Seoul, South Korea. The individual sections on each of these cities cover brief environmental history of the rivers in question (with charming animated maps), and include a few archival photographs, talking heads, and narration. The environmental history is mixed in with the contemporary adventures of “drainers” who descend into the sewers and underground rivers today. These are the most interesting characters in the film, and add some fun to the documentary as a whole, although watching people crawl through sewers may not be to everyone’s tastes. Since this film provides no more than a limited background for each city, environmental historians will want more information on these topics, such as the successes that resulted from civil engineering programs.
Most of the coverage is devoted to exploring current issues related to these cities’ buried rivers, including flooding, pollution, and loss of urban ambiance. Nearly all sections of the film, therefore, feature extensive proposals for or accomplished projects (such as those in Yonkers, London, and Seoul) of “daylighting” rivers and returning them to a more “natural” state. The filmmaker is biased to daylighting rivers and conveys a strong anti-urban tone throughout. The film does, however, attempt to provide a fuller picture of costs and benefits of some of these proposals to return rivers to the city. Even the filmmaker admits, for instance, that what constitutes natural is often difficult to determine once the renovation of a river is complete. In Seoul, for example, water is pumped during part of the year from a nearby river into the daylighted river, using great amounts of power, in an effort to maintain the new river’s ecological and amenity quality. The film acknowledges the “gentrification” dimension of the Seoul project that has displaced many small businesspeople. The fact that many hidden rivers serve as key elements of sewerage or stormwater systems, and would demand very expensive alternatives if removed as infrastructure, will also remain as a barrier to many projects; although, as the filmmaker and many interviewees point out, sometimes letting rivers flow is cheaper (to a municipality) than many engineered solutions.
It is hard not to be caught up in the enthusiasm surrounding these restored river systems, and maybe that is for the best. Many of the world’s cities, such as Venice, Curitiba, Baltimore, and San Antonio, have capitalized on the enhanced urban land values and quality of life that come with having water open to people rather than buried in an underground channel. The next logical step, as the film proposes, is to look beyond the waterfront and major rivers to the buried neighborhood rivers all around us.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-environment.
Nicholas Bloom. Review of Caroline Bâcle, Lost Rivers.
H-Environment, H-Net Reviews.
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