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Filmmaker Interview: Colin Stryker on “River Ways” (Watch the Film Free Now)

Filmmaker Interview: Colin Stryker on "River Ways" (Watch the Film Free Now)

The documentary “River Ways” explores the lives of regular working people affected by the issue of whether to remove four dams on the Snake River in Eastern Washington. Environmental groups and fishing interests criticize the dams for their negative impact on salmon populations, but agricultural communities dependent on the dams oppose efforts to remove them. Combining interviews with careful everyday observation, “River Ways” takes us into the world of wheat farmers, fishermen, salmon advocates, and more. What emerges is a complex portrait of an issue that reaches to the heart of the ideological differences that characterize and divide the Pacific Northwest. [Synopsis provided by the filmmakers]

“River Ways”
Director/Producer/Editor: Colin Stryker
Cinematography: Matt Reynolds
Original Music: Richard Temple
For more information about the film, click here.

Director Colin Stryker on his beginnings as a documentary filmmaker and the origins of “River Ways”…

I graduated from Tufts University in 1992, with a combined major of drama and computer science. I tried computer programming for a while, and then decided I had to get out from behind a desk so I went to film school, at the University of Miami, to earn an MFA in Film Production. There I became intrigued by the documentaries of Frederick Wiseman, D.A. Pennebaker, and Errol Morris. Documentaries have always held a special appeal to me for their way of capturing spontaneous and complicated moments that could never be scripted. After graduating, I headed to Los Angeles like so many others, but quickly strayed from the Hollywood path.
I first came across the issue of the Snake River dams in an environmental magazine in October 2000. At the time, I was saving up some money for my first independent feature, kicking around some ideas, working on a few screenplays. When I read the article, I was immediately struck by the complexity of the issue, the variety of interest groups affected, and the depth of the emotions at stake. Within this seemingly simple question of whether or not to remove several remote dams lurked some powerful ideas about our use of natural resources in modern society, the relationship between our rural and urban sector, and our treatment of and obligations to Native Americans. I knew almost instantly that this was the topic about which I wanted to make my first feature film.

…on how he approached filming the complex subject…

I decided right away that the film had to be personal. What interested me about the topic was the way it lay at the intersection of a complex environmental issue – with all the corresponding political, economic, and social factors – and the very fundamental concept of ordinary people going about their lives and livelihoods. This would not be a film that used a purely analytical approach – with lots of graphics, talking heads, and narration – but rather would pry into the nuanced, organic perspectives of those who had the most at stake in the issue. By getting to know the people affected by the issue, we would come to know the issue at its most sublime and visceral level. I also knew that the film had to be neutral with regard to the removal of the dams, which was one of the main challenges in making the film.

View “River Ways” for free on SnagFilms by clicking below.

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…on how “River Ways” differs from other documentaries, and how he hopes to engage audiences…

I think we have witnessed a shift in the last decade of theatrical documentary films from the objective to the subjective. Documentaries these days often seem to be personal essays, designed to present some political – and usually liberal – argument in the face of some contemporary injustice. The problem is that the audience for these films are usually already on the same page, so what they take from these films is that which they went in already wanting to hear. While I don’t necessarily think there’s anything wrong with this approach – and a great deal of societal good has probably been done through media corralling public opinion – I miss the idea of a film actually challenging our perceptions and introducing new ways of thinking and seeing the world to us. I hope that “River Ways” – by exploring multiple and conflicting perspectives on this very complex environmental issue – leaves the audience with a bit more to think about. I hope also that the audience will find that issues like this are really – at their core – about real people living real lives. The characters are all interesting subjects in their own right, regardless of the perspective they represent. Someone once told me that after seeing my film, they wanted to find each of the three main characters and give them a hug. To me that says it all.

…on documentaries that have inspired him…

I am a big fan of the classic cinema vert style – “Titticut Follies,” “Grey Gardens” – and although “River Ways” does not follow this formula, I like to think that some of the vert philosophy shines through: the idea that the subjects for the film are complicated, organic entities, and that it is not incumbent on the filmmaker to boil these aspects down to some simplistic essential truth. I’ve also really taken a lot from the films of Sinofsky and Berlinger (eg “Paradise Lost,” “Brother’s Keeper”). These films stay true to the vert style but also allow for interaction of the subject with the camera – which, it could be argued, is a more honest aesthetic.

…and on his future projects.

I am currently entertaining the idea of a film following the campaigns of the third-party candidates in the 2012 election. The approach would not endorse any of the candidates’ political positions but simply compare and contrast them, in the context of their David vs Goliath battle to have their voices heard over the much louder mainstream campaigns. I am also working on a script for a low-budget horror film which I hope to shoot next year, and I am working on a science fiction novel.

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