Review: ‘River Silence’

Hot Docs 2019

5 mins read

River Silence
(Canada, 90 min.)
Dir. Rogério Soares
Programme: Canadian Spectrum (World Premiere)

The New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis is an expert on “miserablism.” She has a keen eye for spotting this cinematic style and often identifies it in the work of emerging directors, like early Lynne Ramsay, Andrea Arnold, and pre-Birdman Alejandro González Iñárritu. Miserablism, as the term suggests, features bleakness piled upon tragedy, poverty, and heartbreak. It comes from a good place and can be especially productive in spotlighting stories from impoverished communities, but it’s pure hell to watch, yet often productive in creating empathy for stories that too rarely make the screen.

The most “miserablist” documentary in Hot Docs, to an extent, is River Silence.

Bleakness? Poverty? Tragedy? Heartbreak? Misery?
Check. Check. Check. Check. Check.

A postcard perfect view of Brazil, River Silence is not. Director Rogério Soares (in his feature debut) whisks audiences to a bend in the Xingu River to witness a state of affairs that one subject in the film aptly describes as “post-nature.” River Silence is a bleak portrait of the consequences of human activity on a grand yet intimate scale. Like Ramsay, Arnold and Iñárritu, his cameras go to a corner of the world to which the general population turns a blind eye and, unlike the characters in his film, he probably has sunnier days ahead given his eye behind the camera and empathetic approach.

The site of River Silence’s tragedy is the area surrounding the Belo Monte Dam, which has displaced 40,000 people and all put annihilated the natural environment. Poverty and death saturate the frame as Soares tours the riverside and the outlying areas to which former residents have been displaced in housing projects that aren’t very different from the favelas that epitomize poverty in Brazil. The film is extremely slow, if beautifully shot, as Soares captures the scale of the devastation.

Soares focuses on the stories of a handful of Brazilians whose lives have been upturned by the destruction of the dam. Raimunda, the wife of a former fisherman, shows Soares the remnants of the house she worked tirelessly to build and tours the site of “a future that never came” as she sees her home and neighbourhood—all the roots of her existence, really—decimated by the dam. All that exists there is a mucky toxic wasteland. Tamakwera faces eviction from the impoverished housing community where she raises her children, while the jovial Francinete puts on a brave face and finds hope in her daughter’s pregnancy. The characters of River Silence have all faced serious hardships and Soares show that they will continue to do so. The doc admirably balances the micro and the macro by using a few stories to illustrate the collective loss caused by the dam.

River Silence is also unbearably bleak as the few elements of hope all prove to be false starts. The film is at its most depressing when a Bible group reflects on the story of the Flood and discuss how the world had to be destroyed in order to be rejuvenated. There’s little optimism for the current generation as River Silence shows dead landscapes, dead animals, dead children, putrid waters, and stillborn hope.

The film obviously achieves its purpose in creating awareness for an awful situation by realistically showing the everyday hell of people living it. But when it was done, I put on a few episodes of Killing Eve and popped open a bottle of wine, which probably says as much about the apathy of audiences to such an apocalyptic tale as River Silence does to the hopelessness of the situation.

River Silence screens:
-Fri, Apr. 26 at 5:15 p.m. at TIFF Lightbox
-Sun, Apr. 28 at 12:00 p.m. at TIFF Lightbox
-Fri, May 3 at 9:30 p.m. at TIFF Lightbox

Visit the POV Hot Docs Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival!

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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