Lost Rivers, The Documentary
Once upon a time, in almost every city, many rivers flowed. Why did they disappear? A documentary tries to find answers by meeting visionary urban thinkers, activists and artists from around the world
Produced by | Katarina Soukup
Director of Photography | Alexandre Domingue
Editor | Howard Goldberg
Original Music | John Wilson
The subject of rivers and streams is a frequent one on this site. The initial framework for Montreal’s sewer system stems from a network of watercourses that once existed at surface level. Burying creeks by channeling them through sewer pipes became standard operating procedure up until the 1970s. This phenomenon wasn’t unique to the city of Montreal though. Similar practices existed (and in some cases, still exist) in cities around the world.
The occurrence of lost rivers, as they’re often referred, has the ability to captivate people’s imaginations. Say the words “underground river” and suddenly the subject of sewers, wastewater management and infrastructure becomes something more relatable, even more mystical in a way. It’s a concept that says something about both our mistreatment of the natural environment and its capacity to endure human engineering. While naturally occurring water may have been eradicated from the surface of the city, it continues to flow beneath us, lying in wait for us to discover or perhaps to be re-introduced with the surface again.
In 2009, I was introduced to Canadian filmmaker Katarina Soukup, who contacted me after seeing my work featured in the Montreal Gazette as part of a larger story about Montreal’s subterranean streams. We met the next day for a coffee and during that time she spoke with great enthusiasm about creating a documentary about the former streams in Montreal, their presence underground, and the idea of daylighting them. Over the coming months, with Director/Writer Caroline Bacle on board, work began on the film that would become known as Lost Rivers. I was filmed both above and below the ground and spoke of my experiences underground. As the project gained further financial backing from various broadcasters and organizations, the scope grew to include additional voices and stories involving the mistreatment of water.
Being too widespread a phenomenon to be limited to Montreal, Lost Rivers became more ambitious and further reaching by incorporating stories from Toronto, Seoul, London, and the Italian city of Brescia. As well, Yonkers, NY was included for a much-needed story with a positive outcome involving the successful daylighting of the Sawmill River. The range of voices was expanded to include those of historians, politicians, landscape architects, and other people with a unique interest in exploring sewers such as my ‘draining’ partners Danielle Plamondon in Montreal, Michael Cook in Toronto and members of the Brescia Underground collective who are actively working with their city to help uncover and reveal its intricate subterranean history and its connection to water.
While Lost Rivers may have benefited from a longer runtime and with more detail spent in particular areas, it succeeds at communicating a rather complicated subject without simplifying its message. It does well in the way it walks the line between foolish romanticism and doom and gloom pessimism that’s often prevalent in documentaries relating to environmental issues. It’s a documentary which doesn’t profess to have all the answers in terms of what can be done with water in the city, but does, however, offer a starting point for further conversations. As every urban centre has its own particular challenges, both from an economic and an engineering point of view, it’s important that we have Lost Rivers and its ability to present a captivating overview of the past, present condition of water in various places around the world as well as some of the reasons behind attempts to restore its present through processes like daylighting and naturalization.
Lost Rivers doesn’t shy away from the social and economic realities of these efforts, or the complexity of the engineering involved. Such is the case with the daylighting of the Cheonggyecheon river in Seoul, Korea, where chemically treated water must be pumped into the river in order to create a consistent depth and where local street market vendors have been forced to relocate. Despite this, it is hard not to be inspired by scenes involving people coming in contact with the river’s water. Similar moments involving the recently uncovered Sawmill River in Yonkers, NY are touching in the way they illustrate the importance of having opportunities to acquaint oneself with watercourses in the city and the delicate ecosystems contained within them.
On a more personal level, Lost Rivers and the many people I met through my participation with the production, has helped inform my photography and some of the creative decision-making that has gone into it. Having spent six years exploring the sewers in Montreal, I now find myself back living in Toronto, a city whose waters have not suffered the same fate as Montreal’s- at least not to the same extent. There still exist numerous creeks and rivers and while many of these have been displaced underground, I currently spend more time exploring the ones found flowing at ground-level where there’s evidence of decline as a result of poor engineering practices and neglect. It’s work that’s allowed me to establish a personal connection with water and the natural environment. It’s a path that I can attribute to my involvement with Lost Rivers; one that is more conscientious and focused on issues relating to the natural environment.
Lost Rivers illustrates that despite the fact that we often come in contact with water from different directions and for different reasons, there are connections to be made through our stories. Like any good documentary, it effectively weaves these unique stories together in such a way as to make for a cohesive and compelling story. It doesn’t proclaim to offer all the solutions to the recovery of urban waters, but instead establishes itself as a solid eye-opener for those who may not be aware of what flows beneath us and what has the potential of being brought to the surface again. It’s a starting point which can inspire further exploration on the subject, and hopefully encourage people to look for solutions that are the most feasible and relevant to their own lives.