“I always have my eye out when I’m filming for the unexpected,” says Scott Morris, the filmmaker of American River, which follows aquatic ecologist Mary Bruno and river guide Carl Alderson as they kayak 80 miles down the Passaic River.
That’s right. Kayaks. On the Passaic. One of the most polluted waterways in the country. A Superfund site. That’s certainly… unexpected.
But what’s less expected is the life that persists on the Passaic and which jumps off the screen in American River—from its pristine headwaters, to its industrialized, polluted mouth. Life in the form of riparian habitats and fishermen dropping lines; of rowing competitions and boat clubs on the river; of river-adjacent diners and the people who have strong associations with the river. Morris documents it all—the good and bad, the beautiful and ugly—in American River.
It’s not unreasonable to think that when Hurricane Ida swept through New Jersey last year, it was the first time many people in North Jersey realized how close they were to the Passaic; that it was still “natural” enough, after decades of industrialization and then neglect, to serve as the foundation of a natural disaster. Because for many, the Passaic is an afterthought. For some, too far gone; something to be avoided. A river that was used and abused and is now, in the shadow of what we’ve built around it, to be ignored.
“I had been living in New Jersey for quite a while with my family. I’d drive around for work and I’d cross the river numerous times, sometimes on the same day, and signs would say Passaic River, but you couldn’t see it because it was blocked. I’d go, ‘This can’t possibly be the same river.’”
So for Morris, who previously made a documentary on the efforts to save North Jersey’s Great Swamp (by which the Passaic meanders), the intention with American River was to get people to notice it, care about it and to see its potential.
“What I would really like to see happen is people become aware of the river enough to go up and take a look at it, and in some cases go out on the river,” Morris says. “Doesn’t have to be kayaking, but you can go near the parks and then there are a lot of organizations that you can become involved with.”
Morris conducts interviews with some of those advocacy organizations in the film, but also includes impromptu conversations with folks who do interact with the river—a diner owner and patrons in North Arlington, a young man experiencing homelessness in Paterson, who lives in an abandoned warehouse on the riverbank, folks recreating in a new riverfront park in Newark.
And what you glean from the conversations with experts and everyday folks is a sense of optimism; that the efforts underway (which include a $1 billion-plus cleanup plan from the EPA) are a start to reclaiming the river for the communities that live near it. Sure, there’s plenty of recognition of the mismanagement and neglect that led to the pollution, but one leaves the film feeling that the paradise over which they put up a parking lot can be restored.
A lot of that essence comes from the film’s two protagonists, Bruno and Alderson, whose journey along the river form the spine and narrative thrust of American River. Bruno was an ideal—potentially the only—subject for the film; in 2012, she published An American River: From Paradise to Superfund, a memoir about growing up on the river. Bruno took a similar kayak trip for that book, and so the journey documented in American River marks their return. As with all adventures, the trip wasn’t the same for the kayakers, both because of the elements—trees to maneuver over or around, weather, etc.—but also because of new human developments on the river—housing, graffiti, parks, decay. Noting the new construction in the lower Passaic, near Newark, Bruno quips that it’s going to look a lot different on the next trip.
Bruno and Alderson are engaging, hopeful, knowledgeable guides for this picturesque river trip. Morris does well to capture the joy of the trip through Bruno, Alderson and the dozens of other people featured in the film. In one tone-setting scene a few minutes in, Alderson meticulously rolls up straps and, in dry humor, warns of the dangers of improper strap organization. Morris then cuts to Alderson’s daughter, Julia, who serves as their land support person, bunching up a strap in a ridiculously and decidedly not meticulous manner and the group shares a laugh. That little moment serves a broader purpose in setting a lighter tone for a film that could certainly go dark, given the state of the Passaic.
“That moment is so human and so warm, and it gets a huge laugh from the audience,” Morris says. “It’s about 5 or 6 minutes into the film; it’s a moment people realize this film isn’t going to be a heavy, dark experience, it’s going to be enjoyable. You get the audience at that moment. From that point on, the film does have a lot of humorous moments.”
There are plenty of those human moments, but what’ll grip you throughout is the stunning scenery—which will be in its full brilliance in 4K at its Jan. 20 screening at NJPAC. Morris had a 15-person crew, mounted GoPros to the kayaks, had drones running, set cameramen out in boats and had filmers on the river banks to capture not only the journey, but the natural splendor of the Passaic over two weekends in late Autumn 2018. There are parts of the river that you just surely haven’t seen before and will amaze you. Because of Morris’ approach, one feels as if they’re on the trip with Bruno and Alderson. That was the point, Morris says.
“Part of my idea in the movie is I’m the audience. I want to go out and discover the river with Mary and Carl and discover the river with this audience,” Morris says.
Those myriad moments of beauty make the conversations around the ills of the river land more squarely. When you spend 30 minutes traversing through the beautiful headwaters and serene swamplands and when you visit with Great Falls and see it as you’ve never seen it before, it hurts a little bit to see the neglect of the industrial age in the lower Passaic. It hurts to learn about the production of Agent Orange for years on the Passaic riverbanks, and to learn about how that production contaminated water and soil in the area with dioxin, an extremely toxic chemical. Then, to supplement those points with stories of people who were affected by the pollution, the film adds urgency to the need for remediation.
And it’s a little bittersweet, for reasons much broader than the river, to meet Christian, a young man experiencing homelessness who lives in a burned-out facility on the river. Christian shares thoughts on the river and the neglect of the human-made structures along it, and yet he’s thankful to have found a bed in the old building. Sweet because life, like the flora growing throughout the deteriorating building, has found a way with Christian. Bitter because it’s come to this for him and so many others.
It was “very moving for me and the crew,” Morris says. “He walked by us when we were filming in the ruins. He was apologetic: ‘I hope I didn’t get in your shots.’ And I stopped and asked him, ‘Would you be willing to talk to us?’ He just turned out to be this lovely, articulate man with a troubled life and was very forthcoming.
“Mary likes to think of the people as being the heart and soul of the river,” Morris continues. “The people who live along it live all different lifestyles and lives and I really wanted to capture it and bring the river to life through a mosaic of stories from the people who live along it.”
One also gets the sense that this film is not just about the Passaic. There are thousands of imperiled and neglected rivers across the country, and Morris framed the film with an eye on reaching people who live near other rivers and want to bring theirs back to glory.
“The reason the film is called American River is [because] this is not just a film about the Passaic, and in my research there are thousands of rivers in this country that have similar problems,” Morris says. “There’s something like 1,500, close to that number, where they can’t support aquatic life because of pollution and agriculture and industry and things like that. There are lots of advocates. I’d like the message to go beyond just the Passaic. The Passaic is an archetype for rivers everywhere.”
American River, screening and a special post-screening Q&A with filmmaker Scott Morris, author Mary Bruno and river guide Carl Alderson Jan. 20. NJPAC, Newark. Tickets are $5 and available at njpac.org.