Lost Rivers

Reviewed by: Eric Rumble
Categories: Adaptation

Lost Rivers \ Caroline Bâcle
Official trailer


As the creator of Lost Rivers describes it, we’ve practiced a bad habit in our built environment. “We built our cities on the shores of rivers,” narrates the Montreal-based writer, researcher and director. “Over time, we pushed rivers away – out of sight and out of reach.”

To isolate the ills of this predicament and some applied solutions for dealing with it, Caroline Bâcle’s film plunges into the past, present and future of waterways beneath cities around the world. One of this sharp, thoughtful documentary’s many strengths is its varied cast of characters, all deeply immersed in different river reclamation efforts, from disassembling infrastructure to excavating antiquities to urban infiltration (literally just for the hell of it). Bâcle also weaves in archival material (explaining how London’s cholera epidemic in the late-1800s led to 3,200 km of bricked-in sewers, for example) and some outstanding underground footage and flash-lit photography guided by “drainers,” a global subculture of stealthy explorers that are “fascinated by the entrails of cities.”

As one of the drainers puts it, everything above ground has been documented. This film offers the flipside. It also tries to point out the elephant under our feet. Paved surfaces – which can’t absorb water – are the prevailing glitch in our system. And because an unprecedented number of people living in cities are putting an unnatural strain on natural watersheds and wastewater management, sustainable density remains a major conundrum for ever-increasing urbanization. Bâcle combines this indictment of concrete with evidence that nature responds quickly and dramatically to restoration, and argues that the Earth’s power generates power in people.

Most practically, Lost Rivers engages small business owners, urban planners, historians and passionate citizens in a discussion of the issues that have complicated daylighting projects and sewer infrastructure debates in Montreal, Toronto, London, Seoul and Yonkers, New York. In particular, the story of Italy’s Brescia Underground – a band of manhole popping outlaws who’ve been embraced as a legit historical society that now runs tours of the ancient Roman rivers under their city’s streets – is a great testament to the idea that a mutual appreciation for our buried past can help break down the status quo.

Lost Rivers won the 2009 Planet in Focus film festival’s Green Pitch and premiered at the 2012 opening gala. It will also screen on opening night at this month’s Environmental Film Festival in Washington, DC, and at Prague’s One World Film Festival in March and April. 

Lost Rivers, directed by Caroline Bâcle, Canada: Catbird Films, 2012, 72 minutes

This review originally appeared in Greenbelts, Issue 39.2. Subscribe now to get more book reviews in your mailbox!

Reviewer Information

Eric is the founder and executive director of Night\Shift, downtown Kitchener's nocturnal adventure festival, and he helped craft the rebranding of A\J as its editor-in-chief (2012-2014). He has a dusty Bachelor of History from uWaterloo and has worked as a journalist in Canada since 2000, holding editing positions with up! Magazine (WestJet Airlines’ in-flight publication), AdbustersReader’s Digest and other publications, and contributing as a writer to Canadian GeographicMaisonneuveCanada’s HistorySwerveSaturday Night and others. He also used to curate a blog about great Canadian record cover art at lpwtf.tumblr.com.


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