Lost Rivers (Icarus Films, NR)

lost rivers_75The purpose of Lost Rivers is to inform viewers of urban rivers’ history and convince them that something was lost when the rivers became hidden underground.


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It’s no accident that many cities are located near rivers. Not only is water one of the basic necessities for human life, but rivers also serve humans as a source of water to irrigate crops, as a source of food (anyone for fish?), and a means of transportation thus acting as a facilitator of trade.

As cities grow, however, rivers can come to seem more like obstacles and hindrances to prosperity. Rapid increases in urban populations, particularly in cities lacking modern sanitary installations, led to rivers becoming polluted carriers of odors and disease. Cholera epidemics used to be recurrent features of city life, and in 1858 London the sewage concentration in the Thames became so great that the smell became overpowering, an episode known as the “Great Stink.” One beneficial response was the creation of modern sewage and water supply systems, but these necessary improvements were often accompanied by the paving over of city rivers.

The purpose of Lost Rivers, a documentary by the Montreal director Caroline Bacle, is to inform viewers of this history and convince them that something was lost when the rivers became hidden underground. It’s a film with an agenda, but for the most part avoids directly lecturing the audience in favor of taking you on a journey to discover the “lost” rivers of several cities around the globe, and how the practice of “daylighting” (bringing rivers back to the surface, where they can be seen and enjoyed by the population) can improve the urban experience.

Bacle visits a number of cities around the world, including Montreal, Toronto, London, Brescia (Italy), Seoul, and Yonkers (New York), and finds the unique aspects of each city’s history, the reasons the river in question was covered, and what the city hopes to gain by daylighting it. Sanitation was not the only reason rivers were diverted beneath the city—in Seoul, for instance, making room for automobiles and roads was a key motivation.

A variety of voices are heard in Lost Rivers, from city planners to ecologists to “drainers” who explore underground rivers the way other people might explore caves. The most intriguing people in this film may be the drainers of Brescia, who value not only the rivers, but also the historical structures which contain them, and it’s fascinating to take a virtual tour underground with them.

For the most part, Lost Rivers emphasizes the positive aspects of daylighting, which is presented as a way to revitalize depressed urban areas as well as a means to restore human contact with nature. One exception: a group of merchants in Seoul who were displaced by the daylighting of a segment of the Cheonggyecheon River—they’ve been given new areas to work in, but are making much less money because there’s little foot traffic through their new location. Extras on the DVD include 13 bonus segments and the film’s trailer. | Sarah Boslaugh

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