Film Review – Yakona
Paul Collins and Anlo Sepulveda’s Yakona (2014) doesn’t contain a true plot, but it does have a story. Focusing on the San Marcos River in Texas, the film sidesteps the usual narrative structure found in fiction and documentaries, and rather paints an impressionistic picture of the river and the wildlife surrounding it. Taking a purely visual style and backed by a haunting score, what Collins and Sepulveda shows us is not something to be understood through exposition but realized through emotion. The term “Yakona” is translated to mean “Water Rising,” and with stunning photography both above the river surface and below, we get a sense of how important it is to the people of the community. It’s persevered through time to become a symbol of spirituality and life.
Without a standard plot, main characters, or dialogue, the set up calls to mind Ron Fricke’s Baraka (1992), which did much of the same thing. Without words, Fricke photographed humanity from multiple cultures around the world. Collecting these images, Fricke found an underlying connection tying everything and everyone together. Does this mysterious, unspoken element hint toward religion? The same effect is achieved here, but instead of expanding, the focus narrows towards the San Marcos River, and its existence throughout history. We see the crystal blue waters, the fish, seaweed, and crabs. The water works to provide life not just to wild animals but to the people as well. In one memorable sequence, we watch a turtle juxtaposed with a woman, both of which are in the process of giving birth. The comparison between the two in relation to the river is not a subtle one.
Although there isn’t a driving plot, there are a number of stories being told. The river has been around for thousands of years. To highlight this, we are brought to different time periods. At one point, we watch the early days of Earth, and the first glimpses of the river being created. We jump forward to the prehistoric age and the dawn of man. Further along, we’re introduced to the Native American tribes that inhabited the region, and their battles against the invading white man along the river’s banks. And finally we come to the present day, where humanity has fully encompassed the river with dams, boats, and construction.
The editing jumps back and forth between these arcs, and I was curious how the filmmakers decided to fit all of it together. Why did they choose the specific order of events? This is not a criticism, mind you. When the film sits back and basks in the sereneness of the water – letting everything simply exist and function – is when the effect is at its strongest. This is nature at its most elemental: beautifully strange, random, and often times brutal and unrelenting. The most striking occurance is of a turtle using its mouth to grasp a bird by the foot, trying to drag it down into the water. Seeing the bird struggle to break loose for minutes on end is terrifying but oddly profound at the same time.
Where the film does not work is when the filmmakers insert pieces that are obviously not a part of reality. This involves scenes taking place back in time. People painting on cave walls, early man, tribes fighting against their invading enemies – these are all clearly staged scenarios with actors performing a specific role. The problem here is that it contrasts against the original premise. We’re shown countless moments of real life in real environments, with the camera stepping back and allowing things to unfold organically. That authenticity is missing when we watch a native warrior in the midst of a bloody battle. This displaces us from everything else, forcing an adjustment toward what kind of “story” we’re meant to be watching. When we come to the present time, where actual people are captured playing in water parks, environmental employees work to clean the pollution, and tribes gather to celebrate in honor of the river, is when the film gets snapped back into its proper mode.
Would Yakona have worked better if it were a standard documentary, filled with interviews, statistics, and the like? I’ll let you answer that question. Surely, one of the main issues here is the importance of sustaining the river’s habitat. The second half depicts man-made pollution clogging the water’s flow and reducing its ability to sustain healthy life. It’s even more alarming when those sights are matched directly with kids swimming in the very same water. Is the film more of a mood piece, asking people to bring to it what they will? Or is it a call for action to help save and preserve this natural resource? The approach Collins and Sepulveda take is not for everyone – it’s a slow burn and certainly unconventional compared to mainstream filmmaking. I wonder if audiences will think more about how the film was made instead of what it’s trying to say.