Telluride 2021 Review: Jennifer Peedom’s “River” Gives Way to Emotional Currents

There is a curious sight at the start of “River,” thrusting one into the water at what seems like a horizontal position. After taking in an otherworldly sunset that reflects off the surface of the sea, you’re privy to undulating waves that gradually reveal a man in a canoe inside, attempting to navigate them, but a turn of the camera above the rower, having quite the test of strength in front of him already, shows that what you’re actually seeing is the side of a waterfall and the man not only attempting to wrestle the rolling tides but gravity itself. Director Jennifer Peedom doesn’t overemphasize what an ideal introduction this is to her latest film, buttressed with other scenes so as not to immediately stand out, but when humans are rarely seen, let alone central visually to any scenes in her latest work, the realization that you’re the one in the canoe, holding on for dear life is a point well taken and the unusual angle that makes you crane your neck is indicative of the intriguing place she’s coming from throughout.

Peedom previously scaled “Mountain” in 2017 and formally, “River” is a companion piece, once again mixing staggering contemporary sights of nature with a history of how civilization has sought to reshape it for its own means, every bit as pleasing to the ear as it is the eye with the measured narration of Willem Dafoe and string accompaniment from the Australian Chamber Orchestra. However, the director practices what she preaches when she and screenwriter Robert McFarlane have Dafoe say “a river must be wild,” adhering to a similar experiential structure as “Mountain,” but recognizing she’s tapped into something deeper when water is a resource that no one can simply live without. While “Mountain” considered the incursion of wealthy tourists and developers stepping foot on soil that likely should’ve been untouched by humans, Peedom uses “River” to show how water touches all of us, tracing the rise of communities around waterways from the time villages surrounded them for farming to cities that now rely on them for energy, among myriad other reasons.

Indeed, it takes the full instrumentation of a symphony to underscore exactly what Peedom is doing when cutting across 39 countries where rivers give shape to local infrastructure, from agriculture to commerce, and the God’s eye view she takes isn’t only a matter of visual perspective, but of anthropological insight when water in seen in service to the human endeavor rather than living alongside it as its own entity. Her approach is unique when it isn’t one of strident environmental activism or preciously capturing nature’s glory, instead conveying a reverence towards it with a muscular portrayal that contemplates the various forces at play in any given place. You can watch in awe as you’re assured of sights that would be typically inaccessible either as a matter of geography or when bereft of the proper context, but “River” additionally impresses in capturing a balance of power that shifted from the environment to its inhabitants and now appears to be shifting back, making the feeling of a dam bursting settle inside the mind as what you’re seeing on the screen.

“River” will screen again at the Telluride Film Festival on September 4th at 8:30 pm and September 6th at 9 am.