'Arteries of humanity' - stunning film celebrates rivers

Image: Yann Arthus-Bertrand, River

A stunning documentary that takes a bird’s eye view of humanity’s relationship with water has been released in cinemas.

River, directed by BAFTA-nominated Australian director Jen Peedom and narrated by American actor Willem Dafoe, is a cinematic and musical reflection on how rivers have shaped both the planet’s elaborate landscapes and all human existence.

Spanning 39 countries across six continents and drawing on contemporary cinematography, including satellite filming, the film shows rivers on scales and from perspectives never seen before. This includes footage taken from well above the ground, some of it only available due to recent advances in drone technology.

“I set out to inspire wonder. There is something amazing about looking at rivers from space. The arteries of the planet are also the arteries of humanity,” says Peedom, citing footage from NASA and the work of visual artist Benjamin Grant, who uses satellite imagery to provide insights into how human action impacts the world.

“Thanks to the work of some of the greatest nature cinematographers in the world, we have created a musical and cinematic experience that warrants being seen on the biggest of screens.

"Ultimately, we hope that River prompts the audience to contemplate what it means to think like a river – to dream downstream in time to the longer-term consequences of our actions in the present – to contemplate what it means to be good ancestors.”

River is partnering with environmental charities The Rivers Trust and Thames21. It is the second of a planned trilogy of feature documentaries from director Peedom that explores the impact of landscape on the human heart.

The first, Mountain, became the highest-grossing homegrown documentary in Australian cinemas ever following its 2017 release.

Image: Yann Arthus-Bertrand, River

Research undertaken for River unearthed fascinating information. Here are three astounding facts from the narration.

“The grandest dams have impounded so much water they’ve slowed the rotation of the earth.”

In 2005, scientists from NASA calculated that filling China’s massive Three Gorges Dam would increase the length of a day by 0.06 microseconds. An article in Business Insider suggests thinking of it like this: the further a mass is from its axis the slower it will spin, which is why figure skaters try and spin faster by drawing their arms in tight, so raising a massive amount of water up higher takes it further from the Earth’s axis, thereby slowing the rotation of the earth.

The sky has rivers. Together these sky-rivers hold more water than all the streams and rivers on earth combined.”

Most of the water on and around earth is contained in the oceans (97.2 per cent) according to the Bureau of Reclamation’s Central California Area Office. Most of what’s left is locked up in ice caps (2.0%). Then there’s groundwater (0.62 per cent), freshwater lakes (0.009 per cent) and inland seas and salt lakes (0.008 per cent). That leaves the water in the atmosphere (0.001 per cent) and in rivers (0.0001 per cent).

“When the first rains fell, the earth awakened. It rained without pause for thousands of years.”

Earth was ferociously hot, and the surface was bone dry, when it first took shape about 4.5 billion years ago says Alok Jha, author of The Water Book, which tells the story of water. The water vapour released by geological processes deep underground escaped for the first 500 million years but then the atmosphere and temperatures stabilised, causing condensation. That’s when the deluge came. Also, during this tumultuous period, water-rich asteroids and comets pummeled earth for millions and millions of years, adding to the water on the planet.

River opened in selected UK cinemas on 18 March 2022. It is also available to watch on demand https://www.river.film/