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Critique : I Am the River, the River Is Me


- Dans ce documentaire, Petr Lom se penche sur l'importance du fleuve Whanganui pour les indigènes de Nouvelle-Zélande, premier cours d'eau du monde à jamais avoir obtenu la personnalité juridique

Critique : I Am the River, the River Is Me

Cet article est disponible en anglais.

Who gets to be recognised, legally, as a person – and have the same rights? The question extends back to ancient legal systems far before modern times, including India and the Roman Republic. Personhood was granted to entities other than humans, such as associations, public companies and religious institutions. More recently, controversy was stirred when national governments began granting personhood to corporations. Environmental activists thought quickly: could natural resources, too, be given the same rights as people?

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Petr Lom takes this context as the basis of his newest documentary, I Am the River, the River Is Me, which has just had its world premiere in the Activist Film Competition of the 2024 Movies that Matter Festival in The Hague, Netherlands. The filmmaker has made a name for himself in documentaries examining vastly different cultures with a steadfastly intimate and uplifting lens, including films about Uyghur orphan youth in China, Egyptian women after the Arab Spring, and a Burmese political prisoner.

In 2017, the government of New Zealand (or perhaps more appropriately, Aotearoa, the indigenous Māori name for the land) recognised the Whanganui River as a legal person – the first worldwide. This designation of a non-human natural entity was not merely groundbreaking but has been seen as one step closer to the environmental respect needed to overcome the global climate crisis. The film’s title derives from a translation of a Māori phrase: Ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au. Interestingly, a very similarly titled short film, David Freid’s The River Is Me (2018), also looks at the landmark case granting it legal personhood.

Māori tribal leader and river guardian Ned Tapa leads a five-day trip down the Whanganui River, bringing together Māori people as well as inviting outsiders to partake in the journey. This includes Lom and his team, a First Nations elder from Australia named Brendan Kennedy, First Nations activist and Brendan’s daughter Melissa Kennedy, and several artists from around the world. Together, the group learns about and experiences at first hand the immense importance of the river to the Māori people.

Lom takes an inclusive and reflexive approach to the filmmaking process. The film begins in a very dynamic way, including shots of sound recordist Ad Stoop and sound assistant Tahuaroa Ohia listening to the forest at 4:30 in the morning. However, this technique grows increasingly distracting along the way: a boom mic interrupting a shot here, a stray camera appearing there, as if limited care had been taken to direct nimbly.

Although touching, I Am the River, The River Is Me feels like a small part of a much larger story on Māori ties to the river and environment that fails to adequately translate the emotive power of the river trip to the screen. The running time is dominated by the duration of the voyage itself, leaving viewers yearning for more substance demonstrating the active significance of the river to the Māori community. Showing stories from and about indigenous communities worldwide is vital, especially with a collaborative approach, but the film doesn’t live up to its true potential.

I Am the River, the River Is Me is a Dutch-Norwegian production by the Netherlands’ ZINdoc, co-produced by the Netherlands’ KRO-NCRV and Norway’s Ten Thousand Images. Its international sales are up for grabs.

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(Traduit de l'anglais)

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