Beneath many older cities across the globe are mysterious worlds hidden from sight since the Industrial Revolution. Rivers, once lifelines to wealth, were exiled underground as they became breeding grounds for disease. Burying rivers solved the sanitation issues of the times, but the aging infrastructure today falls short of modern needs and cuts off humans from nature. Caroline Bâcle, the writer and director of the new film Lost Rivers, which follows the stories of these forgotten waterways, spins an intriguing narrative of the rivers themselves but also of how people might connect with them. I spoke with Bâcle, who is based in London, about her experiences during the project and what Lost Rivers could mean to cities today.
How did you get the idea to make a film about these “lost rivers”?
My producer Katarina [Soukup, founder of Catbird Productions] and I—I think she stumbled upon it first, on the website of Andrew Emond. The film kind of opens with him. He’s a photographer who was living in Montreal but is in Toronto now, and he basically went into the underground of Montreal and took photos of its lost waterways. We were just fascinated by his website and thought, “Oh, my gosh, there are rivers under Montreal, my hometown. How incredible.” We thought it was a unique thing to Montreal, that it was only our city, and we had this amazing, incredible, mysterious history. And so originally we thought, “Oh, we have to make a film, or do something important about Andrew and his work or about the history of Montreal,” and we just developed the idea, and the minute we started doing any kind of remote research on “lost rivers,” we found that it was a part of urban history around the world. So the subject kind of opened up to something much bigger.
Your film catalogs just a few of the many “lost rivers” around the world. How did you choose the particular rivers you follow?
Interesting stories for sure, but we also decided to map out the story of the evolution of perception of water in the city. And through that evolution, we chose stories that, yes, were interesting, but also represented different stages in that narrative—basically a human relationship with water and the urban environment. So we went to London to see the history of why these rivers were buried, and then we went on to problems that we have today related to various waterways in cities. We wanted this history to be known, like when we went to Brescia to see these dudes who give tours of their lost waterways.
We were following stories of rivers that were brought back to the surface, and around the time we were doing all of this research, we stumbled upon the Saw Mill River in Yonkers, New York, and that was something that was imminent, that was happening after years of lobbying and getting funds together. It was about to be daylighted. We felt that was a really important story to follow, throughout all these different threads of stories, to follow one river that was actually being daylighted, and [to see] the energy and the passion that has to go into that. So we were still in the really early phases of development when we started filming in Yonkers, and we just filmed that until the end. So that’s how we did it. We had a little bit of development money from the French CBC [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation], and through that, we did loads of research then narrowed down the stories that we wanted to put into the film.
It was interesting to see the Yonkers project, especially to see the unexpected troubles, such as businesses that were hurting from prolonged construction.
It’s funny for Yonkers, because we followed the story for quite some time, and you actually felt the metamorphosis of the city and the obstacles that they went through. I have a soft spot in the film for the Yonkers story.
What surprised you when making this film?
When we started developing the idea for the film, and I was writing the treatment and some kind of script, I thought, gosh, this is going to be the hardest film ever to film because my main character is a river that can’t speak, that’s not really going anywhere. I thought it was going to be such a difficult thing to portray and put into a narrative, especially in the way I wanted it to be presented, in a kind of more poetic, less journalistic type of treatment. But then we started following the stories—for a film about rivers, there are a lot of people in it. And what I kind of realized was the focus of the film wasn’t about rivers, it was about our relationship with rivers, and it’s really a people story. It’s people longing for nature that they’ve lost. So what I think surprised me more is how much it became a character-driven, human story with something that I thought was going to be about nature, if you will.
What do you hope to accomplish with Lost Rivers?
My producer and I, we’re not militants about river restoration. We’re not environmentalists ourselves. We’re not historians; we’re not urban planners. We’re just citizens, urban dwellers, who just love cities and their history, and I think that the treatment of the film is kind of like that. It’s from an observer’s point of view, an urban dweller’s point of view. It’s not a political film saying, “We must daylight rivers now!” and things like that. I think it’s just a film about awareness of the cities around us, and when we become aware of the decisions that have been made in the past, of how they were shaped, I think it’s kind of empowering for people living in cities to say how they want them to be in the future and to take ownership of their urban environment, or their lost waterways, or their green spaces. This is an awareness film.
What should landscape architects in particular take away from Lost Rivers?
What didn’t make it into the film that I thought was so interesting was the idea of sustainability. It was Kim [Storey, an architect and urban designer in Toronto] and James [Brown, also an architect and urban designer in Toronto] who said sustainability in an urban environment doesn’t exist because a city is always constantly evolving—getting bigger, getting smaller, getting denser. So the challenge for urban landscape architects is to adapt to the evolution of the city that they’re working in, and to respond, or to predict, or to see problems that may arise, and to really focus on the quality of life of people living in cities. Everyone is always going on about sustainability, and they were just saying, you know, things will never be constant; the only constant is things will change. And I thought that was a really interesting way of looking at a city. That stayed with me a lot.
Did you face any challenges during the filming of this project?
Convincing a camera team to go into meters of crap. I would say I’ve never done filming like that before, and it was very challenging. It was fun, but very challenging conditions, going against currents of sewers. We completely trusted the people we were with, the urban explorers and all of that. But it was an incredible, surreal filming experience. I’ve never done anything like it before.
Lost Rivers is distributed in the United States by Icarus Films. Learn more about Caroline Bâcle’s work at carolinebacle.com/index.html.
This interview has been edited and condensed.