Down The River To Enlightenment

by | Feb 18, 2022 | FILM & TV

Headwaters Down is the winner of this year’s Virginia Environmental Film Contest and a highlight of the RVA Environmental Film Festival 2022, which kicks off tonight. Kieran Cleary delves into the story behind the film to better understand what can be learned from a two-week trip down the James River.

On Friday, February 18, the James River Association will kick off the 12th annual RVA Environmental Film Festival with a series of virtual and in-person screenings to take place over the next two weeks. Topics covered by films featured in the festival this year will include animal rights and vegetarian lifestyles, accessibility of fresh food, rising temperatures within our cities, the continuing limitation of Native American access to and ownership of natural resources and space, and the importance of collective decision-making about the conservation and use of public lands. This year’s crop of films also finds us taking a candid look at global sustainability, focusing on the conflict between the basic human needs of an expanding population and the limitations of our planet’s resources.   

In order to bring attention to the work of local filmmakers, the RVA Environmental Film Festival will also include the winner of this year’s Virginia Environmental Film Contest. This year’s first prize went to filmmakers Justin Black, Will Gemma, and Dietrich Teschner, directors of Headwaters Down. Work for the film began at the end of last May, when Black, Teschner, Gemma, and two other friends set out on an adventure that they intended to record for posterity. Through my conversations with Black and Gemma, I learned that, if anything, what’s portrayed in Headwaters Down simplifies and plays down some of their adventures, such as their encounters with territorial campers along the upper James River and Monacan tribe members on the Middle James. The film strikes a lovely balance of humor, art, and poetry that elevates it above a mere record of the events that occurred during the trip. A film made both to commemorate friendship and experiences and to remind viewers that protecting and repairing the ecosystem of the James River is of the utmost importance, it’s also funny, well-paced and beautiful. 

Headwaters Down creators Will Gemma, Dietrich Teschner, and Justin “Saw” Black

The story told by Headwaters Down begins with no expectations beyond the undertaking of a float trip down the James River. It ends 13 days later with the trip’s glorious conclusion in downtown Richmond. The warm narration, written by Will Gemma, reflects the pace of the journey down the river through mostly rural areas. In addition to the three filmmakers, the Headwaters Down crew also includes Andrew Murray, a naturalist certified in the identifying of native Virginia species. Over the course of the film, Murray provides names for many of the species they encounter, lending a valuable layer of knowledge that broadens the project’s environmental scope. The final member of the quintet, spiritual mentor Stephen Keuster, lends color, knowledge, and music of his own to the project. 

Their outing turns out to have lasted as many days as the 2022 edition of the RVA Environmental Film Festival, which, in the same manner as the portion of the James River the quintet from Headwaters Down floats along, aims to gather many ideas together like tributaries, combining them to create a strong environmental consciousness that will flow like a river through our city.   

In its final form, Headwaters Down is culled from 35 hours of footage  shot on “Sony FX6s and some less powerful Fuji cameras, iPhone 10s when necessary,” as well as several great aerial clips. What emerges is a side of the James River that isn’t usually seen by Richmond residents who, like me, just hope to find a lucky parking spot down at Brown’s Island on weekends. We may love our little stretch of the James River, but we probably haven’t considered the many forms its scenery takes over the course of a trip from the “headwaters down.”

Watching Headwaters Down gives us the opportunity to understand more about the parts of the river we don’t know so well. As we learn, we meet these adventurers and follow them on a journey as they pare down to the necessities for a while – luxuries in this film are a notebook, a guitar, and hot meals – and go to sleep each night with the sound of the running water and whippoorwills in their ears. Bathe in the river along with them. As you filter drinking water from it alongside these adventurers, think about what goes into it. Marvel at its bounty. 

As their lives become a little simpler, their new surroundings liberate them to see their needs and  problem-solving abilities in a new light. Each day, they deliberate on a suitable camp where they can set up their shelter. They realize that they need to consider the elements and the way the landscape is affected by land ownership, agriculture, and local politics. 

The film is 100% Do-It-Yourself, and this includes the soundtrack. It’s created by Justin Black, who records under the name Saw Black, as a companion to the film. Fans can look for the Headwaters Down soundtrack to be released soon through WarHen Records, the Charlottesville record label that has released several previous Saw Black records. 

This film makes me laugh, but it also offers poetry. Beginning both gracefully and hilariously with open minds and expectations, it soon becomes a tale of five guys getting ensnared in the politics of ownership along the banks of the James River, and dealing with the unsettling feeling of making camp when you don’t own the land you’re camping on. While the crew treats their repeated conflicts with local campers who don’t welcome them as a blip they soon shrug off, I’m left feeling strange and sad at the thought of anyone facing difficulty in finding a place to sleep. Frankly, making camp in the wilderness is scary enough without this struggle. The stigma on those without the benefits of land ownership, they soon learn, is real.

In some ways, their project resembles The River And The Wall, a film shown during last year’s RVA Environmental Film Festival. This film documents the way the Rio Grande River, where it forms a natural barrier between the US and Mexico, becomes a danger to recreational adventurers due to the presence of armed transport boats ferrying people and illegal products across the river. Along a stretch of the river where a US Nature Preserve is located, people hide in desert wilderness, attempting to cross the US Border. In an effort to prevent this activity, the US government constructs a border wall, which has the unfortunate side effect of blocking large game species from accessing the river, the very water source that attracts them to the area. Black is a fan of this work, which takes a similar look at a river, the natural beauty of which is threatened by unfortunate political realities.

As it goes on, the scope of Headwaters Down’s political narrative flows from land ownership issues to broader political and environmental concerns. The group witnesses the James River Association’s work planting tree barriers to act as buffers along the agricultural stretch of river in the Piedmont region. And they land on a culturally significant peninsula – Rassawek, the historic capital settlement of the Monacan tribe and an ancestral burial site, which is currently threatened by a federal infrastructure project that will direct water to areas of projected development in Zion Crossroads. The film lends its voice to the Monacan tribe members who are being required by the government to provide proof of the importance of their historic ancestral grounds. 

I admire the filmmakers’ choice to take a break from so many of the things that make up their day-to-day routines and temporarily focus their lives on this river, hoping that by doing so, they can let more people know that it needs to be protected. What they learn during their journey is that the river is alive, and speaks a language that evolves with the changing landscape on its path from the headwaters down.   

The RVA Environmental Film Festival takes place from Friday, February 18 to Friday, March 4, with screenings taking place both virtually and in a variety of venues online. All screenings are free, but must be registered for in advance. Check the complete list of screenings and locations, and register online to attend, at Headwaters Down will be presented as part of RVA EFF with a virtual screening on February 20. There will also be a separate in-person presentation of the film at the Byrd Theatre for a single showing on February 27 at 6:30 pm. Tickets for this showing are $12, and can be purchased in advance at Eventbrite.

Kieran Cleary

Kieran Cleary

Kieran Cleary: works at a Taekwondo school in Midlothian. Co-writes a music blog, All Apologies. Graduated from The College of William & Mary, BA English, 2014. Volunteers for the RVA Environmental Film Festival. Likes to play bike polo and go on long walks and adventures.

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