Professor's Global Rivers Project documentary premieres Nov. 5 in Beijing at international conference

The Panasonic HD camera anchored onto a specially-equipped raft on the Rio Grande, New Mexico, USA.

More than two years of research, planning and more than a year of filming culminate Nov. 5 in Beijing, China, with the world premiere of Global Rivers, a documentary project that depicts the similar, though vastly different, stories of five major world rivers – the Amazon, Danube, Ganges, Mississippi and Rio Grande – and the communities that live along their banks.

The film's screening takes place at the biennial congress for CILECT (Centre International De Liaison Des Ecoles De Cinema Et De Television), the premiere international organization for film and television schools. At the Madrid, Spain, 2006 congress, CILECT provided seed funding for the project, marking the first time the organization has ever funded a U.S. project."

Collaborative approach

Melinda Levin, associate professor and chair of UNT's Radio, Television and Film department, was one of three executive producers for the project, along with Karla Berry, associate professor of media arts at the University of South Carolina and Suzanne Regan, professor of film and television at California State University, Los Angeles.

Irene Klaver, UNT associate professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion Studies and expert on water issues, was heavily involved as a consultant on the project and served as co-director of the filming on the Rio Grande River. Levin's former graduate assistant, Liz Daggett – who is now coordinator for the Center for Outreach in the Development of the Arts at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn., was involved with shooting the footage and has maintained a Global Rivers Project blog about the production.

Filmographers from around the world -- many of whom are natives of the areas near the featured rivers -- participated in filming segments of the documentary.

The project was inspired in part by the River Cultures-Ecological Futures program Klaver initiated with the United Nations Educational, Science and Cultural Organization.

Life blood of the Earth

"Rivers are like the veins of the planet and they change and move and at times serve as political borders," Levin says. "This film tells stories about how communities interact with their river, how they define the river and how they are defined by the river."

The film focuses on 3 themes – work, play and ritual – and weaves these themes into the stories told about the 5 rivers.
Additionally, each river was used  to illustrate a specific concept or concepts.

The Brazil-based crew on the Amazon River.

Division and reconciliation

Levin was the director for the shooting that took place on the Rio Grande, and she talks about the dramatic contrast the film captures between the Rio Grande and the Danube, both of which have traditionally served as political boundaries.

"While we were on the Rio Grande, we shot some of the border wall going up in sections," she says. "And we were invited to film in the Laredo sector headquarters for Customs and Border Protection . It was like being at NASA. There was this huge wall of screens, and each screen is the monitor for a camera that is looking at the river, watching for people trying to illegally cross. The room is staffed with people watching those screens, and they are in constant contact with field officers down on the river, relaying information to them when they see people trying to cross."

Conversely, segments about the Danube include file footage from the late 1980s, of people crossing the river from Eastern Europe into Western Europe for the first time after the iron curtain came down. They also feature the director of the Danube filming, a Serbian native, telling on camera her memories of that historic time.

"The film illustrates the juxtaposition of the joy of a wall coming down and the tension of a wall going up," Levin says.

Telling the rivers' stories

Levin says Klaver was instrumental in the early stages of the project, as the producers worked to figure out which rivers' stories to tell and how to tell them.

"She was seminal early on as we were starting to think through how cultures and communities interact with rivers," Levin says. "She not only gave us a lot of specific info about each of the rivers to help us decide the themes and locations to look at but because she's a philosopher, she's so fantastic at contextualizing that and helping us as visual people see the humanistic side, to help us figure out how do we pull that concept off on camera."

Klaver says she sees the film project as an outstanding opportunity to educate people about rivers and how humanity depends on them.

"The cumulative impact of humans on rivers is not sustainable," she says. "At the same time most people are not aware of the state of their rivers; by becoming more involved, concerned and engaged with their rivers people will be more active stakeholders.  Additionally, local groups that have lived on and worked with rivers might gain a larger political voice in major decisions such as dam building or river diversions, which impact their livelihoods tremendously."

Customized documentation

The film that will be screened in Beijing – about 30 minutes long – is the first of several variations that will be customized depending on the audience. Other versions, including the feature-length version Levin hopes to screen in the North Texas area, will include three more rivers – the Nile, Mekong and Los Angeles rivers.

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HD technology

While CILECT was happy with the film's subject, its main interest in the project was as a testing ground for advanced technology high definition Panasonic cameras, equipment and Avid post production software and file sharing technologies.

As part of the funding agreement, the producers and crew created an in-depth report about how the cameras and equipment behaved during "torture tests" while filming in the field and during the production and editing process. And, thanks to Levin's involvement in the project, UNT's RTVF program was able to take advantage of a deep discount and is now fully equipped with high definition cameras and equipment.