My emotional circuits have never been wired to be an outdoor person, which didn’t bode well for making a documentary about the White River this past Summer. I began filming at an arm’s length, safely zooming my lens from a bridge or flying a drone from a distant sidewalk. It wasn’t until the final shoot for the film that I even walked into the river.
The sun had just set behind the trees. I was filming a family who chose to buy a home near the river and enjoys spending time swimming in it. Wading in the water with my camera, I called over to my subject, a local illustrator, complaining to her about the bugs, the mud on my sneakers, my ineffable homebody anxiety about simply being outside. She sketched on, amused I’m sure, calmly replying, “I guess it’s true sometimes. You make the art you need.”
In that moment, after four months of filming, talking to different people connected to the river – an engineer, policy makers, artists, a developer, a volunteer, a politician, environmentalists – it became clear the act of making the film was as much for me as I hoped it would be for those watching it.
I wanted to tell a story about progress. I had previously made educational videos for Citizens Energy Group, so I had familiarity with the DigIndy tunnel. As the largest infrastructure project Indianapolis has ever seen, the 28-mile tunnel system they’re creating will all but eliminate the sewage overflow that has polluted the White River for so many years. Knowing as a result we will soon have a much cleaner and more accessible river, I began wondering what the city will do with it. In my view, whatever the river becomes over the next decade will reveal a lot about Indy’s values, namely our relationship to the natural world.
A man approached me after a recent screening of the film to say, “You made that river look a whole lot better than it deserves,” which I think speaks a lot to the challenges it faces. Unlike many documentaries about nature which ask you to call your congressman, go out and get 100 signatures, visit our website and so on, I wanted a very subtle and undirected call to action. I wanted to present the river as an object of beauty, emotion, and potential. For a neglected natural resource, that felt like an important first step.
This final act of the film echoes many of my own feelings about economic/personal/cultural progress in a convergence of voices – that working hard and trying to do what’s right can serve the common good, that we’re only able to express love for what we choose to give our attention, that most people need to recognize beauty in order to live fully whether or not they realize it, and that change and human progress is as inevitable and flowing as the movement of water. I know I constantly need these reminders in my everyday life, as what’s often absent in our default wiring is precisely what we need most.
For me, it is to take a pause, look, see what’s there in the reflection.
Brandon Walsh is an Indy-based video director. His short films have screened in the Midwest and internationally, and he has made national award-winning commercial work with the advertising agency CVR.
‘Onward Ever’ is a product of the Next Indiana Campfires Films with Indiana Humanities and is supported by the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. View the trailer for ‘Onward Ever’ or watch the film in its entirety.