The Rio Grande is embraced by Mexican families at the points where the river forms a border between Texas and Mexico. Parents and children frequently swim in the river to keep cool during hot summers.
But it's also avoided by some. Americans tend to stay away from the banks of the river, which they view as dangerous because it's guarded by the Border Patrol.
The Rio Grande is one of the rivers captured by Melinda Levin, chair of the Department of Radio, Television and Film, and Irene Klaver, an associate professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion Studies, who is the director of UNT's Philosophy of Water Project. Documentary filmmakers from around the globe for the Global Rivers Project focus on various other rivers.
The team is creating a 60-minute film exploring the history, recreation and economic and cultural impacts of the world's rivers. When finished, the film will include footage of eight rivers — the Ganges in India, the Rio Grande, the Mississippi, the Amazon in Brazil, the Danube in Serbia and Slovakia, the Nile in Egypt, the Mekong in Thailand and the Los Angeles River in California.
Levin, one of the film's three executive producers, attended the premiere of a 30-minute version of the film in Beijing Nov. 7. It was shown during the annual meeting of the Centre International de Liaison des Ecoles de Cinéma et de Télévision, an association of the world's major film and television schools. View film clips of the Global Rivers Project.
CILECT, as it is known, approved the project in 2006 as a case study to examine the workflow processes of shooting and editing a high-definition collaborative documentary. The association provided initial funding for the project, which has been the work of faculty members and students from California State University in Los Angeles, the University of South Carolina and the University of Southern California as well as UNT. The filmmakers also hired student film crews from the nations where they were shooting footage and received equipment and additional funding from media technology corporations, their universities and other sources.
Levin says CILECT has never funded a U.S.-based project before.
"The organization's interest was that we would be testing a high-definition, Panasonic tapeless camera that works with software for Internet sharing of large image and audio files," she says. "The idea was to compare the HD performance under varying conditions."
Levin says the plan to shoot footage of several of the world's rivers came from her collaborations with Irene Klaver of UNT's Philosophy of Water Project, which focuses on social-political and cultural dimensions of water.
Klaver also is a member of the Water and Cultural Diversity expert advisory group for UNESCO's International Hydrological Programme, an international scientific cooperative program in water research, water resources management and education.
At UNESCO, Klaver also started a River Cultures-Ecological Futures initiative, focusing on water resource management along river basins, and suggested the idea of a documentary on rivers to Levin.
"Most people are not aware of the state of their rivers," Klaver says. "By becoming more involved, concerned and engaged with their rivers, people will be more active stakeholders. Local groups that have lived 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."
Liz Daggett, then a student in UNT's master of fine arts program in documentary film, assisted with shooting the Rio Grande footage. The UNT group made several trips to capture different areas of the Rio Grande in different seasons.
Levin says the sections on each river in the documentary all have a theme, with the Rio Grande footage showing the "river as border" and "river of migration."
"The footage shows that while the river serves as a political border and is highly contentious in that way, it is difficult to ask people, animals and ecology to use it as a dividing line, since it has always brought two cultures together," says Levin, who managed to get permission to shoot from Border Patrol boats out of Laredo.
The footage of the Rio Grande will contrast with footage of the Danube, which has themes of "river as constant in history" and "river as reconciliation."
"It's a natural road on one side and a border on the other. As a road, the Danube connects countries and opens access that helps to build the history of the region, but as a natural boarder, it can divide different countries and societies," Levin says.
She adds that colleagues in Bratislava, Slovakia, obtained footage of people crossing the Danube freely during the 1989 revolution that overthrew what was then Czechoslovakia's government — and opened the border of the river.
Daggett, who graduated from UNT in August, worked with student film crews in Eastern Europe who were shooting footage of the Danube. She attended the Global Rivers Project premiere in Beijing with Levin.
"I was continually amazed at how big the Danube is compared to the Rio Grande — so big that there are islands in which traditional Serbian families farm and raise animals. In some places, the river is three miles wide and looks like a lake," says Daggett, who is now coordinator for the Center for Outreach in the Development of the Arts at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn.
She said the biggest challenge of both the Danube and Rio Grande shoots was filming in extreme weather, as close to water as possible.
"We shot in weather from minus 20 degrees to 104 degrees, in huge boats and kayaks," Daggett says.
The longer version of the Global Rivers Project should be completed in the fall of 2009.
"People are seeing aquifers drying up, climate shifts and other environmental changes in their own lives, so they're ready to hear about environmental messages," Levin says. "But the film will also have hopeful messages."
Klaver says she hopes viewers of the film will realize "that rivers are blue ribbons of our world — arteries to be celebrated and respected."
Nancy Kolsti with UNT News Service
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