top of page

The River and the Filmmaker: A Journey towards a Meeting Place

DOI: | Issue 6 | May 2021

Dungala-Baaka River & Catherine Gough-Brady (RMIT University, Australia) [1]


Agnès Varda’s idea of cinécriture opens up an understanding of the myriad of influences on the creation of a documentary, and its combination of malleability and certainty. For her, film is a product of exploratory walks and seemingly unconnected choices as well as the scripting, shooting and editing.

Michael Renov suggests there are four desires that influence the way a documentarian creates a film, one of them is ‘to express’. When I set out to film Rivers (2019), I was expressing anger and outrage at destruction taking place. For Donna Haraway, this ‘urgency’ arising from destruction does not create despair, rather it inspires action in response to the crisis. Thus the film became an action in response, both to the crisis the Murray-Darling river faced, and crises in my own life.

Through interviews I conducted, this article compares my own filming journey with that of two award winning filmmakers: Nicole Ma and Sabiha Sumar. I find that filmmaking involves locating a meeting place between the filmmaker, the filmed subject, and the audience.

How It Began

In an interview with Martha Kenny, eco-feminist Donna Haraway states: ‘We live in a time of mass extinctions and exterminations, including the genocides of other critters and of people…. Things can be very gradual, and then boom— systems changes mutate life and death radically and suddenly. Understanding that in the tissues of our flesh seems to me really urgent.’ (2015: 256). Understanding my own life to be a ‘system’, was indeed a ‘gradual’ realisation, leading up towards the ‘boom’. In February 2019 I looked around me and for the first time I felt witness to the apocalypse that is caused by humans. It felt, as Haraway suggests, ‘really urgent’, and this destructive relationship between humans and nature became the impetus behind my next experimental film, Rivers (2019b).

The gradual lead up began in November 2018 when my own personal eco-system was challenged. I came face to face with the cold uncaring nature of the bureaucracy of an institution, and was deeply shocked as I became nothing more than a line in a spreadsheet. It was a dehumanising experience. The polite neo-liberal illusion that I had power to control my environment dissolved. Then on my birthday the following month, my neighbour sabotaged a vine that surrounded my balcony, an important connection to nature when living in a city, one that was much needed. Watching the vine slowly die depressed me. These seemingly trivial things in the scheme of large scale tragedies that face the world were strangely affecting and important to me. I was losing my sense of agency.

As I was facing these personal disruptions, bigger problems were emerging. There was a recurring news story, below the fold, that our main river system in Australia, the Murray-Darling, was dying. Millions of fish were floating to the surface dead, and yet again the Darling River would stop flowing over summer. This disaster can be understood as largely due to human mismanagement. I became angry with people for how they were treating the world, and me.

My emotional experiences and the films I choose to make are linked. Agnès Varda’s concept of cinécriture provides a mechanism to view these seemingly personal and emotional experiences as mortice and tenoned to creative practice: ‘Cinécriture isn’t the scenario, it’s the ensemble of exploratory walks, the choices, the inspiration, the words one writes, the shooting, the editing: the film is the product of all of these different moments.’ (2014: 124). Varda’s idea of cinécriture opens up an understanding of the myriad of influences on the creation of a documentary, and its combination of malleability and certainty. Varda recognises that the film is made by humans, with all of their preoccupations, biases and needs. That these humans exist in a body located in a time and a place, and that this affects what a filmmaker creates. Cinécriture can be viewed as a new materialist idea because Varda speaks about the relationship between her filmmaker self and the world of things around her. She explores the effect those relationships have on the formation of her films. This fluid and relational quality corresponds to Karen Barad’s claim that ‘Agency is not an attribute but the ongoing reconfigurings of the world’ (2003: 818).

Implied in Varda’s cinécriture is the fact that a person has the ability to creatively act on their life experiences; for instance, that I can convert my anger into affirmative action. Varda allowed her emotion to guide her filmmaking. She states in The Beaches of Agnès (2008), ‘I wanted to be a happy feminist. But I was very angry’ (1:26:41). Varda used this emotional state of anger as an impetus to create. Like Varda, I am an educated white middle-class woman living in an inner urban area. Like Varda, I have also experienced privilege. This position of privilege means I have the ability to take action. As dehumanised as I felt, this was a new feeling, not one repeatedly thrust on me, and so I still had the energy to convert the oppressive feeling into creative work. I believe I can develop a relationship with what is going wrong, and then develop a relationship with an audience, via the film, to share some solutions—or at least an understanding of the problem. At times I feel this is a compounded delusion that comes from being entitled and an artist, but I can’t shake the arrogance that this is possible. The film becomes a way of inhabiting the emotion and taking action, or what Haraway calls ‘response-ability’ (D. Haraway and Kenney 2015: 260).

So, to return to February 2019, as I walked away from a local beach on a hot evening, [2] I decided I should travel to the Murray-Darling river system to experience it first-hand and communicate my reflections via documentary film. However, it would not be a film about people living on the rivers, but rather about the river system itself. I wanted to ask the river system: ‘who are you?’. My research process and lived experience as part of my PhD journey was leading me down a post-humanist path, into my little Hyundai and out into the red dirt of the Australian outback.

The central research question for the experimental film was: how could I create a relationship with a non-human entity, such as a river system, and share this connection with a human audience using video? It felt important for me to exclude people from the frame, to allow space for the river to become the central character. At this point I had not even considered the impact that my colonial heritage or my wholly urbanised life would have on how this relationship with the river as a character could form. What I did understand was that this creative decision had the potential to establish a false dichotomy between humans and nature. Haraway wrote about this separation as the ‘discredited breach of nature and culture’ (2016a: 10). I share these sentiments, but at the time I felt that people were silencing our ability to listen to the river system. Viewers would benefit by understanding the river system as something other than being explained in relationship to people. On deeper reflection, it was also the intention to provide this river system with the agency I felt I was losing in my own life.

In the Breach

As a documentary filmmaker, I am confronted by a different breach alongside Haraway’s breach in nature and culture. I live in a blurry dichotomous state between my world and the world I film. For Haraway, ‘urgency’ involves action arising from ‘inhabiting’ [3]. As a documentary filmmaker I exist partly inside, but also outside what I film. I am not convinced that I fully inhabit the worlds I film, because inhabiting them would require a lived experience which I do not have. Instead, I aim for being in that world. David MacDougall writes about how, as a filmmaker:

The subject moves in and out of the miniature frame of the viewfinder, breathing the same air as the filmmaker and surrounded by the same objects and sounds. They await the same things — a door opening, unexpected arrivals and departures, the coming of night. In these moments, the subject's existence and the filmmaker's are closely interwoven (1998: 29-30).

MacDougall makes a good point here; there is indeed a strong bond and shared experience that develops when filming a subject over a period of time. I would go further and argue that there is even a desire on the part of the filmmaker to understand on a deep level what it is like to inhabit the subject’s world. This is so that the filmmaker can then share that understanding and experience with the audience. But, as the filmmaker, I have not lived the filmed person’s life; I have not had the experiences that led them to the point when I started to film them. I go home and live my own life as well. I am not the writer I film, nor the philosopher, nor the visual artist, I am not an Indonesian community worker, I am not a person undergoing a legal experience, I am not a lawyer, I am not a professional cook, nanny, gardener, road worker. I am not a river. I am nearly always not what I film.

Because I do not fully inhabit the world I film, at the beginning of the process I need to locate a point of similarity between myself and that which I film. This is how I tentatively narrow the breach. Post-humanist philosopher Rosi Braidotti states ‘‘We’-who-are-not-one-and-the-same-but-are-in-this-convergence-together’ (2019: 182). Braidotti is implying that points of connection can be found between all things, no matter how different, even a person and a river system. In my film projects, this point of similarity between myself and what I film is also a connection point to a potential audience for the film. In the case of the rivers, the initial connection was a need for agency—for me to find the rivers’ agency, and for the audience to view this finding as an affective filmic experience. What I was seeking in my own life, I sought for the rivers as well. But if I am to understand what I film, I need to be open to the way that the filmed subject sees the world, which will often not be how I see it. Narrowing the breach is not about imposing my preconceptions on the other.

When travelling up to the river system I thought its true identity would be wild and unruly, with unmediated control over the river's destiny. A romantic and simplistic notion, since it has been tens of thousands of years since the river system was wild. Upon arrival and further investigation, I found that the identity of the rivers included being managed, or mismanaged. They were used by people and by animals, who were also part of the river system. My relationship with the river system had to be open to what it showed me about what it was. To be in the world of the rivers I needed to understand their world view, not just impose my own. Therefore the footage I planned to shoot changed to include imagery of dams and regulators, as this was part of what makes up the system. And yet, my initial connection point of agency meant that I continued with the idea of not including people’s stories about the river in the film, instead focusing on the river itself, ‘speaking’ directly to the audience.

Emotional Connection

A documentary can be understood as resulting from a set of relationships. Therefore, in this film about the river system I was setting out to cross the breach and establish a relationship with nature. As predominantly a city-dweller, my existing relationship with nature is via my local park, the beach—and of course my balcony vine. On Saturday mornings I head to the park for my first coffee, sit on a shaded bench and open a literary fiction novel, glancing up every now and again at the ducks on the pond. I relax into the space for a limited period of time before heading on to the shops to buy my weekend treat of bread and cheese. My relationship to nature is a reward I give myself on the weekend, like cheese and literary fiction. The Rivers film shoot was nine days. Four of them were spent driving, so the shoot was to last five days. That is not enough time for me to break habits or disrupt existing patterns. I still felt most at ease with the river system when sitting on a bench under the shade of a river red gum (one that didn’t squeak too much as I have seen them drop boughs without notice). I had a not-very-good-but-still-it’s-caffeine home-made Turkish coffee in one hand and a Booker Prize-winning novel in the other. Every now and again I glanced up at the river. While I took my city ways with me to the river system, at a subconscious level my relationship with nature did begin to change once there. I was beginning to notice nature more frequently and therefore interact with it differently, but at this stage that change was slight.

For me, stories and myths are a shortcut for how to relate to the world. As Tim Ingold wrote, ‘Telling a story is not like weaving a tapestry to cover up the world, it is rather a way of guiding the attention of listeners or readers into it’ (1993: 153). I understand that my colonial origins mean that I hold a significant void when it comes to connecting with Australian nature via culture. There are existing stories that have tens of thousands of years of relationships with Australian nature, but they are not the stories that belong to my family. Métis scholar Zoe Todd expresses this familial and cultural connection to Canadian river landscapes beautifully when she writes ‘My stepfather gifted me the language of fish’ (2020). I had no language or story structures to translate what I saw. Mario Blaser and Marisol de la Cadena describe the colonial realising the limits of their entitlement: ‘The world of the powerful is now sensitive to the plausibility of its own destruction in a way that may compare, at least in some ways, with the threat imposed on worlds sentenced to disappearance in the name of the common goods of progress, civilization, development, and liberal inclusion.’ (2018: 3) The destruction described above was not just my role in the apocalypse I had set out to film, nor even my lack of agency, but rather it included the realisation that I had a minimal relationship with nature because of my urban life and my colonial heritage. For the Gay’wu group of women, from the north of Australia, telling a story about a body of water, or whales, involves being the ‘whales and ourselves’ (2019: 16). The non-human characters in the story and sense of self are entwined. While I may have subconsciously been entwined to my balcony vine, this was not a feeling that had been problematised through generations of stories that, as Ingold suggests above, reveal the world. Drawing upon culture to connect with nature would not work in my case because I was not from the culture that held the stories and to use them would be appropriation. Haraway’s (2016a) directive to connect nature and culture is problematic in the colonial experience. As Arif Dirlik suggests, ‘any critical notion of place must recognize some notion of boundary’ (2011: 56). Respecting boundaries includes those found in cultural relationships as well as physical fences. This inability to tap into existing understandings of nature and use them meant that it took me quite some time to understand how to cut the footage I had gathered.

My emotional relationship with the river continued to develop once I had left the location throughout the editing of the footage. While filming, I was working out how to be in the space of the rivers [4]. When I returned from the shoot, I began thinking about my relationship with nature, and tried to work out how to move beyond seeing nature as an aesthetic setting for my existence.

How could I move it from the background into the foreground? I worried that I had not progressed beyond the “reward” idea that I took to the rivers with me. And so I began searching for ways in which I could connect with the images I had filmed, so that I could pull them into the centre of the story, and my consciousness. I was having to find a new emotional connection with nature, especially with the river system. In my own way I was, as Haraway so famously heralds to the world, ‘staying with the trouble (2016b: 1).

Finding the Meeting Place

The emotional connection I eventually developed over the course of the filmmaking was not just with the river system itself; it was more precisely with the images I had gathered of the rivers. In the documentary industry, editing is equated with the writing stage of fiction works. It is the stage where how to tell the story is discovered, and the relationship with the audience is brought to the fore. Finding the narrative, both emotional-line and plot, is partly about working the relationship with what has been filmed through to a place where it can connect with an audience. Documentary filmmaker Nicole Ma reflects this attitude when talking about her experience of the editing process of Putuparri and the Rainmakers (2015): ‘I tried a lot of different storylines and narrative arcs and structures to see if I could make a story that would then encompass what really was my journey in learning about the Aboriginal culture and what I wanted to share with an audience.’ (interview with author, October 1, 2018) The narrative of a film results from a complex set of inputs: the cinécriture that led to the moment; filmmaker intention; Renovian desires; [5] and of course, what was shot. But there are many ways a story can be told, even given the restrictions of what has been shot. Choosing how to tell the story is part of the process of developing an understanding of the world view of the subjects and how that can be best conveyed to an audience. As Ma suggests, it is not resolved in the filming stage, but rather during the editing phase. At this point the filmmaker is being in the world of both what is filmed and who might see it. For me, the edit is finished when that synthesis of worlds has been accomplished and a meeting place between the filmmaker, the filmed subjects and the audience has been found.

After my initial cut of the rivers film, I was concerned that the relationships I could create would not be meaningful because I had shot mostly cinematic images [6]. In my experience, cinematic imagery can often distance the character in the footage from the lived experience of the viewer. The cinematic footage takes the character out of the everyday and mundane shared existence that we all know; it makes them exotic and other. I was apprehensive that being cinematic also indicated I had not moved beyond aestheticizing the rivers during the shoot, and had not entered that mundane space which comes from a deeper connection and the lived experience, the place when even the most beautiful (or terrible) thing can become normalised.

Nicole Ma talks about the way she used cinematic images in her film Putuparri and the Rainmakers (2015). She brought in cinematographer Paul Elliott to film some of the footage because she thought her own cinematography skill ‘lets the team down, so to speak, in the beauty of the visual storytelling’ (interview with author, October 1, 2018). Ma’s footage has a raw verité quality focused on capturing the way that people interact:

What I wanted was to encase the archival verité footage with beauty, because I knew it was going to go in the cinema and so I wanted the cinematic story to carry that sort of footage so that it would imbue it with emotion and give it sort of a heroic factor. I needed beautiful images of country to make that happen (interview with author, October 1, 2018).

In Ma’s film, the cinematic footage often forms breaks between scenes, which allows the viewer to look at, and admire the landscape rather than be involved in the dilemmas of the lives of the people in the landscape. It also contextualises the characters’ lives in terms of a particular landscape. What troubled me was that I did not have those verité scenes that would form the storyline engagement with the audience, I only had the cinematic shots that would sit between the scenes. As much as I admire the rivers, I had no intention of making an empty hagiography. I needed to work through how to create emotional and narrative threads using them, even if they were cinematic.

Part of this internal dilemma came from the distance between the stories I heard when I visited the rivers and the shots I had. For instance, I worried that I did not see the Darling the way the Bindara station owner saw it. In the late afternoon, before my evening shoots, she would come down and chat with me about the Darling River and the station. It was clear that the river, the animals, the trees, and the land were engraved on her soul and shaped the way she viewed the world. The station owner talked to me about the mismanagement of the river, which included stories of devastating horror. One time a pulse-release of water was sent down the river on an extremely hot day. As the water crept over the dry riverbed, it heated up until it reached boiling point, and as it entered a water hole, found at each bend in the river, it heated the water. The fish semi-hibernating in those waterholes rose to the surface dead. The water crept along the next hot dry stretch of riverbed to the next waterhole, and those fish died, and so on. She watched on, helpless to do anything, angry that the water release date set for ‘environmental purposes’ had not been changed to a cooler day. This station owner revealed a deep emotional connection to the river through love and tragedy, whereas I simply thought about the Darling River in aesthetic terms—how it looked interesting in late light.

Stories can provide a way to understand a human connection to place, whether they are stories that result from a millennia of connection, as in the case of the Aboriginal stories, or even just the lived experience of one generation, such as the stories told by the station owner. Normally I would have interviewed a local Aboriginal elder, whose stories stretch through time, and also the station owner, whose stories contained a recent lived connection. These various stories could have provided a profound entry point for the audience into this place. The stories would function as a way to understand the river system in the film, and the river itself would become a visual that forms cinematic rest moments. But this film was doing something different by placing the river in the centre of the frame.

To give a sense of how this human-in-the-film to human-in-the-audience connection normally works, I return to the work of Nicola Ma. Ma filmed Aboriginal elders Dolly and Spider interacting with a waterhole named Kurtal. Kurtal is an important living entity that is central to their belief system. Ma talked about this waterhole: ‘I’ve seen things and experienced it as being a living entity … The land works with the humans that are on it and the humans need the land in order to survive.’ She went as far as to say, ‘So yes, it was a character’ (interview with author, October 1, 2018). Kurtal has an important character arc in Ma’s film, moving from being hidden and needing to be dug out, to being flooded and wild; from being without people, to being reunited with people. Connecting the Aboriginal elder Spider with Kurtal formed key emotional and structural moments in the documentary. When I asked Ma about Kurtal’s character arc, she talked about the way that Spider and Dolly saw it:

It was sad. And then they say things like ‘Kurtal’s a pensioner now’. Because when they became pensioners they thought Kurtal was also a pensioner, and maybe he’s going to die as well when they die.... Apparently some of the waterholes on that big canvas [painting of the land] had died, had been killed. One had been killed by a mining explosion, and so there’s stories of them disappearing and never coming back. So they did think of them as alive (interview with author, October 1, 2018).

Ma talked about the waterhole as if it could be alive, grow old, or be killed. She switches seamlessly between how she sees the waterhole (‘one had been killed’), and how Spider and Dolly personify the waterhole (‘maybe he’s going to die’), her view reflecting those of the people she filmed. Part of Ma’s journey in creating the film was to learn to view Kurtal as her central characters saw it. She then passes on that knowledge to the audience, so they can understand Kurtal in that way. She successfully passed on a human ‘worldview’ where Dolly and Spider are the bridge over the breach between Kurtal and the audience. I was making a film without a human bridge to help create the meeting place.

Shifting Identity

The process of finding the meeting place and crossing the breach involves more than imagining an audience reaction and cutting the subject in a way that evokes a response. It involves a shift in the identity of the filmmaker. Understanding a new world view necessarily changes an existing word view. Cultural historian Rebecca Solnit writes about this journey as a process where a person ceases to be lost ‘not by returning but by turning into something else’ (2017: 71). Being attuned to the rivers was partly about changing myself, about how I viewed cinematic shots and landscapes. It was also about realising that neither I nor the rivers were wild; both of us were managed and mismanaged.

In an interview, Pakistani documentary filmmaker Sabiha Sumar talks about how the process of filmmaking changes her. Creating documentaries is ‘a process of self-learning, self-realization, evolving, understanding’ where she is ‘moving towards a deeper realisation’ and her ‘question changes as the journey progresses and I'm always open to that change’ (interview with author, September 7, 2018). For Sumar, the director has a “sense of what we want to find and where we should look for it…. But there's no way that I can tell how anybody's going to respond to my questions or what I will learn in the end” (interview with author, September 7, 2018). Creating the film uses an iterative process where the documentary filmmaker adapts to changing circumstances and while there will always be an initial intention for the work, the filmmaker’s identity shifts to accommodate what it is that they film. This is a result of being in the world of what is filmed.

Nicole Ma does not feature as a character in Putuparri and the Rainmakers and yet, as she stated earlier when discussing editing, the film needs to ‘encompass’ her ‘journey’ (interview with author, October 1, 2018). Sabiha Sumar is a character in her films, and so as the viewer we watch her transformation as the relationships develop. First person films can document the transformation that takes place in the filmmaker as they journey to the meeting place, but this transformation occurs whether or not the filmmaker includes it in the film narrative. Even though I am not a character in Rivers, my role is key in terms of the relationships that will form the film, and the film will in some sense document my journey.

When I first reached the rivers and was still influenced by my preconceptions of what the rivers are, I took out my mobile phone and filmed a short segment. I essentially said hello to one of the rivers by filming it. Within hours I brought out my professional camera and I was filming the Murray River, starting the relationship. I did not use any of those first shots, and knew this to be a likely outcome, just as I would never use the initial few minutes of an interview with a person. We needed to move past the awkward phatic part of the conversation and become comfortable with each other, before the usable footage could begin. When I look back on those first shots, I witness my emotional distance (and also materially, in terms of distance of the camera from the water) from what I was filming. The initial shots were aesthetically pleasing, but were not yet communicating anything in particular. That emotional connection develops over time, and it continues to develop throughout the editing process.

Part of the problem I had in creating Rivers was because I needed to rethink how I approached scale. In their discussion on environmental documentaries, Smaill and Davis propose ‘a consideration of scale, and a multi-scalar approach in particular’ (2018: 22). Scale is not just applied to frame size (those cinematic shots causing me problems), it is also a measurement of time. Because the rivers exist in flux—an ever-changing present and simultaneously in the long stretches of geological time—I wanted the film to include a different visualisation of time. I was interested in capturing the visuality of past, the present and future forms of co-existence. Rosi Braidotti suggests a post-humanist approach to time is one where ‘the present becomes both a memory and a promise’ (2019: 176). This effect was achieved by using a frame-shift technique where each shot was reduced in opacity and then layered over itself around 15 times with each instance being pushed by one or two frames. The effect is that the present blurs into both the past and the future. I had discovered this technique in the work of video artist Merilyn Fairskye, who also used it as a way to shift temporality in Stati d’Animo (2006) [7].

I decided to move my editing system into an unused classroom, so as to cut simultaneously alongside the image being projected onto a large screen. This technique changed my relationship to the shots, and the cinematic was turned into the mundane, because my eye wandered around the screen picking out elements in the shot—an animal here, a ripple there. Rather than seeing the entirety of the shot, which can be heroic and overwhelming, I could now focus on individual things within it. This meant that I engaged with multiple components of the same shot, and by allowing time for that in my edit, it moved away from being merely heroic, into the everydayness of the river. This process enabled an understanding of how to use the wide landscape shots in a way that further revealed character. I thought that this would mean that the film would only connect with viewers when seen on a large screen, but as I explain later, that was not the case. The large scale was necessary for me to enter into and understand the footage, but not for the viewer to then watch the film.

I normally cut on action, essentially human bodies in movement, but there were no human bodies to use as anchors in this project. Karen Pearlman describes editing as the alignment of ‘editor’s living, breathing body’ (2009: 15) with the material being edited, usually another body with its own breath and rhythms. Here I was attempting to align my body with the landscape, and to do that I needed to make the image as big as possible so that I could see all the parts of the landscape—the kangaroo eating, birds flying, trees swaying in the wind. These became like the involuntary movement of breath and rate of the eyelids that inform editing choices when cutting a person. The large screen facilitated this process, and I created a situation of sympathetic alliance with the footage. I was no longer lost.

The meeting place between myself, the rivers and the audience that I found turned out to be with people who already had a strong connection with the river system. I released the film on Facebook in three private groups set up by people who lived in the river system. The film was uploaded a year after filming, just as late summer monsoon waters were making their way down the dry river bed of the Darling. The people who lived on or near the rivers shared the film widely and over 700 people watched it within a week. I found this surprising because the film is highly experimental and they would have most likely watched it on very small screens. As they shared, some commented on how the film captured the essence of the river system, its beauty and degradation. My concern that I could never see the Darling River the way the station owner saw it turned out to be unfounded. I had managed to create a film that depicted the rivers in the way that people who knew them well, and were part of the river system, also saw them. This included both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal viewers such as the rap artist DOBBY, from Murrawarri and Ngemba lands of Brewarrina and Weilmoringle, who used the film as visuals for a live music performance about the river system.

Non-representational theorist Nigel Thrift writes about this quality of the arts as creating an ‘interface between showing and experiencing, between sensing and understanding, between enduring and living in the moment in a kind of joyful/questioning’ (2019: vii). Whilst the film did not change viewers’ behaviours, and possibly changed very few viewers’ attitudes, it importantly became a filmic interpretation of feelings that people collectively already held, and became a way they can share a visualisation of those feelings with others.


Creating the film Rivers involved developing a relationship with parts of the Murray-Darling River and expressing that in video. I headed off on the shoot because I was angry with my situation, but once I arrived at the rivers, my pre-existing emotions and ideas dissipated, and I became receptive to the worldview of the rivers. My initial point of connection with the rivers—being its agential quality—remained throughout the filmmaking process, but the character of the river transformed further as I developed my relationship with what the river system is, as opposed to what I thought it would be. This in turn changed me, and how I view my own place in the posthuman world.

Rather than inhabit the world of what I film, I experience a sense of being in their world. Though this act of being I develop an understanding of their worldview. My aim is to find a meeting place between myself, what I film and the audience, so that I can share the world view of, for instance, a river. It is once I find that meeting place that the creative process of making the film is finished. The development of the relationship continues during the edit with the images, even after I am no longer in contact with what I have filmed.

It was difficult for me to cut Rivers because I was not used to creating a relationship with a non-human entity. I was working with a posthuman sensibility, both in terms of the frame size, the shot length, and the use of time. To create a film that used scale differently I needed to change my normal mode of production to enable this difference in scale.

The meeting place with the audience that I found turned out to be between the rivers and people who were part of them. The film did not change viewers behaviours or attitudes, instead it became a filmic realisation of feelings that people already held, and became a way they can share those feelings with others.


  • Barad, K. (2003). ‘Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter.’ Signs 28 (3): 801-831.

  • Braidotti, R. (2019). Posthuman Knowledge. Newark: Polity Press.

  • De la Cadena, Marisol, and Mario Blaser. (2018). A World of Many Worlds. Durham: Duke University Press.

  • Dirlik, A. (2011). ‘Globalization, Indigenism, Social Movements, and the Politics of Place.’ Localities (1): 47-90.

  • Fairskye, M. (2006). Stati d’Animo. 24 mins.

  • Frankham, B. (2013). ‘A poetic approach to documentary: discomfort of form, rhetorical strategies and aesthetic experience.’ Doctor of Philosophy, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Technology, Sydney.

  • Gay’Wu Group of Women (2019). Song Spirals: Sharing women’s wisdom of Country through songlines. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

  • Gough-Brady, C. (2019a). ‘A River as a Character.’ Video Journal of Education and Pedagogy: 1-8.

  • ---. (2019b). Rivers. 10:20.

  • Haraway, D. (2016a). ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.’ In Manifestly Haraway, 5-90. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

  • ---. (2016b). Staying with the Trouble : Making Kin in the Chthulucene. North Carolina: Duke University Press.

  • Haraway, D., and Kenney, M. (2015). ‘Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulhocene.’ In Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies, edited by Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin, 255-270.

  • Ingold, T. (1993). ‘The Temporality of the Landscape.’ World Archaeology 25 (2): 152-174.

  • Ma, N. (2015). Putuparri and the Rainmakers. 86 mins.

  • MacDougall, D. (1998). Transcultural Cinema. edited by Lucien Taylor. Princeton: University of Princeton Press.

  • Pearlman, K. (2009). Cutting Rhythms : Shaping the Film Edit. Kidlington: Taylor & Francis Group.

  • Renov, M. (1993). ‘Toward a Poetics of Documentary.’ In Theorizing Documentary, edited by Michael Renov. New York: Routledge.12-36.

  • Smaill, B., and Davis, T. (2018). ‘Rethinking Documentary and the Environment: A Multi-Scalar Approach to Time.’ Transformations (32): 19-37.

  • Solnit, R. (2017). A Field Guide to Getting Lost. Edinburgh: Canongate.

  • Thrift, N. (2019). ‘Foreword: Non-Representational Dreams.’ In Non-Representational Theory and the Creative Arts, edited by Candice P. Boyd and Christian Edwardes. Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan. vii-xi.

  • Todd, Z. (2020). ‘(Alberta*).’ Urbane Adventurer: Amiskwacî (blog). January 23.

  • Varda, A. (2008). The Beaches of Agnès. 110 mins.

  • Varda, A., and Jefferson Kline, T. (2014). Agnès Varda : Interviews. Book. Conversations with Filmmakers Series. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.


[1] Papers that result from research conducted in a particular region in Australia are starting to include the name of the area as the first author. This recognises the importance of land as a place of knowledge. It should be noted that the Murray-Darling river system runs through a number of different language groups, and as such has many names. Most of the footage being discussed was filmed on Yorta Yorta and Barkindji lands where the river is known as Dungala and Baaka respectively.

[2] I reviewed this paper in January 2020, when climate change as climate collapse was highly visible here in Australia. This past summer I not only needed to check Vic Emergency to find out where the fires were located, I also had to check the EPA Vic hourly updates on air quality before stepping outside. Beach walking was rare at this time because the air was unsafe.

[3] Haraway’s description of urgency: “The word ‘urgency,’ rather than crisis, is an energetic term for me. Urgency is energizing, but it’s not about apocalypse or crisis. It’s about inhabiting; it’s about cultivating response-ability” (D. Haraway and Kenney 2015: 260).

[4] For a discussion of this process please refer to my digital paper ‘A River as a Character’ (2019a).

[5] Renov’s desires are: to record, reveal, or preserve; to persuade or promote; to analyze or interrogate; to express (1993: 21).

[6] Cinematic images are images that are beautifully shot, well lit, and often fairly wide.

[7] I discovered Fairskye’s work via Bettina Frankham (2013: 98).

bottom of page