I saw the audience-award screening of Yakona (which translates to “water rising”) at the tail end of SXSW, and as I watched it at home a second time in preparation for this review, I thought to myself, “This is why I go to a movie theater.” This film should really be seen in something like an IMAX theater; watching it on anything other than a large screen with high definition image and surround sound does not do the film justice. Its merit is still there, but nothing beats seeing the beautiful, symphonic, poetic Yakona in a large, dark theater.
A somewhat abstract documentary of the San Marcos River in southern Texas, Yakona is a spiritual and meditative journey across space and time. The opening, similar in vein to that of The Tree of Life and 2001: A Space Odyssey, frames the beginning (in several senses of the word) of the river with that of the universe. Opening with mystical light particles floating across the screen, images of ancient cave paintings, a bright red sun, a turbulent storm, and an aerial view of Earth from space contextualize the San Marcos River as an ancient entity in nature, one that far precedes humanity.
Yakona is then broken into four chapters (each of which is named with a Native American word) that somewhat reference the four seasons and, in a more macro sense, the cycle of life. The film traverses the San Marcos River from source to mouth, jumping back and forth through time, between different organisms, and between different areas in and around the river. For example, the sound of an ancient Native American carving an arrowhead with a stone somehow scares away a fish, which is in a separate and unrelated shot. Subsequently a boat gradually propels itself across the water, its motor sounds resembling those of the arrowhead’s construction. Divers drop from the boat into the water and use jackhammers, which again use a similar sound, to dig up the relic arrowhead. In this way, the film is actually structured like a river, progressing like a collection of branching streams and incoming tributaries as it cuts between footage of marine, mammal, and human life as well as reenacted historical events and documented modern ones.
Directors Anlo Sepulveda and Paul Collins photographed the film primarily with a DSLR camera, but colorist Daniel Stuyck made everything look so gorgeous that I initially mistook the film as being shot on higher quality camera equipment. Though the film certainly jumps from different settings and wild life images, the edited result is cohesive enough to understand the overall context. This is partially thanks to the entrancing, epic score by Justin Serber, which guides the film in smooth arcs. With hardly any dialogue and lacking a voice-over narration, the film is like an audio-visual symphony.
Yakona primarily concerns the relationship between the river and humanity, but given the sprawling shifts in perspective, its tone is both critical of and empathetic to man’s interaction with the river. A long montage of home-video footage from a once active Aquarena Springs attraction and images of its current algae-ridden ruins at the riverbed show a critical awareness of a “build-then-abandon” system that’s intrinsic in our society. However, instead of being singularly caustic towards humanity, the film is also broodingly nostalgic, as the calm, poignant score highlights the “good times” of the river park. Compared to the river, we humans are transient and ephemeral, which the film compassionately acknowledges.
Also significant is the relationship between past and present, especially in the reenacted battles between the Comanches and Texas Rangers. Sounds of gunfire are juxtaposed with modern fireworks, bloodshed with images of recreation at an amusement park. The filmmakers illustrate these battles as transitional periods, with European religion and technology paving the way for the modern communities that are now infused with the river habitat. Though man’s cruelty towards himself has carried over its effects to the river (e.g. pollution), cruelty itself is inherent in nature. In between some of the battle scenes, a snapping turtle attempts to drown its duck prey, while another bird brutally crushes a crustacean’s shell before swallowing it. Just as the river connects nearly all forms of life, so do the rules of nature.
The Verdict: 5 out 5
Yakona transcends most of the politics inherent in many environmental documentary films (the onscreen claim at the end, which reads the “river has witnessed significant changes and its continued existence is in peril,” is reasonably necessary) and achieves a deeply moving and visceral experience that places viewers at the heart of the San Marcos River. I remember, during the question and answer session after the SXSW screening, one of the crewmembers offered, “Why not protect something that gives us life?” Why not show the river “mutual respect?” These are great questions, and Yakona reminds us – in an honest and gentle way – that the river indeed gives life, that it is an ancient, almost eternal figure that’s just as complex (if not more so) as any human being, and that we should respect and love it as we would ourselves.