Monday 8 October 2012

Between Two Rivers review

Where the wide Ohio river meets the vast expanse of the Mississippi stands the city of Cairo (pronounced Karr-o), Illinois. You would expect a settlement near two rivers to thrive and for a time it did, as a steamboat port, its prosperity reflected in its fine colonial-era architecture. Cairo could have become one of America's biggest cities, yet today it is derelict and all but abandoned by its population.
Between Two Rivers, a new documentary by Manchester-based filmmakers Nick Jordan and Jacob Cartwright, sets out to tell the story of how Cairo has become a city whose only viable option for the future may be as a museum for a forgotten industrial past. In 2011, during the course of filming, Cairo made the headlines as the US army blasted holes in a Missouri levee, controversially drowning fertile farmland in a bid to save the city from destructive floodwaters. The film ponders on what in the city is worth saving, reminding the viewer that Cairo may have been spared this time but that its future is still far from certain.
It is no surprise to learn that both Jordan and Cartwright are painters; Between Two Rivers is a painterly, poetic film, evident from the misty opening shots of silhouetted trees, submerged in a desolate river, to languid images of ruin and urban decay. But the film is far more a visual metaphor for the death of the American dream (as in the aestheticisation of the ruins of Detroit); it uses both interviews and archive film, such as footage of 1960s racial tensions in the city, to question the social, economic and moral order that has prevailed in Cairo and expose the inequalities of the American experience. The film also challenges the reliability of memory, and the tendency to hark back to a golden age which may never have existed – or at least not for certain sections of society.
Cairo is like an island, a gateway between the American north and south that sits comfortably in neither. The city has historically attracted migrants from the margins of society, acting as a holding place for those who are too poor to move on elsewhere. There's a sense that Cairo's precarious situation cannot be attributed just to acts of nature, but that human attitudes and actions have contributed to its decline.
The filmmakers spent four years making Between Two Rivers, and getting to know a range of interviewees, from a former senator and congressman to members of a local soul band and a purveyor of fresh fish (who suggests she provides a lifeline to those subsisting on welfare). The most striking aspect of the film is the pride expressed by those who call Cairo home, and the hope they cling on to for the city's future, despite all odds. There are some people, at least, who are not going to give up on Cairo too soon, and Between Two Rivers goes some way to explaining why.
Between Two Rivers is currently screening at film festivals. To keep an eye on upcoming screenings visit

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