Lost Rivers, a documentary film

Rhythm Circus magazine

A review of Caroline Bâcle‘s documentary on the lost rivers of London, for Rhythm Circus magazine

If you could turn off the noise in cities - stop the traffic, ask everyone to be quiet and pause the cranes, drills and hammers of construction – you would still hear things. The wind rustling through the remaining trees, birds calling and, if you listen very carefully, the ripple of rivers underneath the road, long since covered over but a subterranean stream trickling unbeknownst. These lost rivers are the subject of a new documentary film, in which writer and director Caroline Bâcle investigates a few cases around the world and how they are slowly being brought back to the surface.

The majority of these hidden streams were covered in the name of progress and development. Early on Bâcle brings her cameras to London to descend into the Fleet River which goes underground before Kentish Town, passes through Farringdon and enters the Thames near Blackfriar's Bridge. Our guides in this underworld are 'Drainers', groups of people whose idea of a pleasurable night out to descend manholes in the search for the city underground.

Over the 18th and 19th century as London burgeoned through industrialisation the river became contracted and contained, polluted with effluent and carcases it slowly became an open sewer before piece by piece it was built over with roads and railways. After the Great Stink of 1858 pioneering engineer Joseph Bazalgette incorporated the remaining open sections of the river into his new vast sewerage system, forcing the channel into culverts and drains where once it had flowed a natural path. At some points, such as Clerkenwell, you can hear the stream not far from the surface, while in other locations the Fleet is now 40ft down.

The psychological and poetic notions of descending into darkness to reveal a hidden truth, an underlying permanence which remains despite all man's efforts to conceal and the discovery of resilience in nature is rich. The idea of hidden rivers goes back to Greek mythology and the Styx where the souls of the dead were transported on their journey to the underworld. Jules Verne encounters one in A Journey to the Centre of the Earthand it doesn't take much imagination to consider them within a Freudian reading, dystopian science fiction realm, romantic quest to unearth an unbroken connection to primordial life, or a variety of rich readings of physical and imagined geography.

Instead Bâcle leads us on a somewhat dry and repetitive trip around the world to a number of cities which have discovered and, for various reasons, want to bring the water back to the surface. There is a very obvious and heavily hammered message that cars, traffic and concrete are bad while green, rivers and nature are good. But we understand this within the first twenty minutes and where the film could have explored more poetic and subtle territory it just bounces from city to city repeating the same message.

This continent hopping may well suggest that there is a good budget behind the film, and that this is a global issue more about us as a people and our direction rather than a local concern, but it really serves to dislocates the viewer until place is less important than the somewhat simplified and prosaic message “RIVERS ARE GOOD, OK!”. A more nuanced and artistic study of fewer rivers would have been far more interesting.

Not that there aren't moments of poetry within the film: a street in Toronto where all the houses are standing at different angles due to the slow subsidence in the street caused by a river below, a tree root descending into the void of a London sewer trying to reach the Fleet but instead hanging limp and serving as a desperate connection between the strange otherness of subterranea and the everyday of the street above, the Drainers who operate under the cloak of darkness and discover new mappings of the city which exist somewhere between the permanence of nature and the physical intervention of man. But I am quickly taken away from any artistic reading of the subject by the robotic and tedious voice-over, Bâcle's proselytism and a score which while pleasant music serves to instruct a certain emotion onto the viewer in the same way a Hollywood score tells you what you should be thinking.

Last week artists, composers, orchestras and beatboxers mapped out the subterranean River Effra in South London in a procession of celebrating the unseen and transferring the energy of the concealed into music and performance. It conjured up romance and poetry and artistically explored the hidden river. An approach Lost Riverscould desperately have learnt from.