STIFF Film Review – Go Ganges!
J.J. Kelley and Josh Thomas, documentary filmmakers who last made Paddle to Seattle: Journey Through the Inside Passage (2009), return to familiar territory with Go Ganges! (2012). This time around, instead of kayaking from Alaska to Seattle, Kelley and Thomas take a much more ambitious challenge: traveling to India and following the renowned Ganges River from the glacier-filled source (near the Himalayas) all the way to the ocean (at the Bay of Bengal). A quick Wikipedia search finds that the river is 1,569 miles long, and is the world’s second-greatest river by water discharge. By rickshaw, paddleboat, scooter, and finally by foot, Kelley and Thomas make their way south, interacting with locals and gaining a deeper appreciation for what the river means to the Indian people, both religiously and for basic natural survival.
For a person who is not schooled in Hindu culture, the Ganges River is presented as a basis of wonder and curiosity. It is the very life force for the people, and many of them treat it as though it were a god. It works as a main source of agriculture, serving over 400 million people down its path. But it is treated much more than that. People bathe in it, drink from it, and do their laundry in close proximity to each other. Because religion is so highly integrated with the river, sacred practices are held there as well. People are blessed by it; families hold funerals there, sending their beloved ones off into their form of the afterlife. But in the very same water, garbage and human waste are thrown in. During one particular scene, it is described as the only river in the world where human remains can be found and the authorities wouldn’t be called, because it is so common. As a result, the Ganges is one of the most polluted rivers in the world. Strange for something that is held so sacred to the people to be so contaminated at the same time.
What does this mean for our two adventurers, and the small camera crew that accompanies them? Well, certainly it means don’t drink from it, that’s for sure. It seems that Kelley and Thomas, two very likeable and charismatic people, have taken on this test not to provide answers to the problems the Ganges faces, but to see if they can make it all the way through to the end. They run into various obstacles: having to sleep out in the wilderness unprotected, the tires on their rickshaw constantly going flat, water seeping into their boat, their scooter being unable to start, etc. And there’s also that very real possibility of them falling victims to crime. But Kelley and Thomas push forward, surprisingly upbeat even during their more difficult times, as though their minds were already two months ahead of their bodies, laughing over the kind of ordeal they just went through.
While watching this, I couldn’t help but think of another documentary that followed a similar suit: Man Zou: Beijing to Shanghai (2010). Made by Sonicsgate director Jason Reid, Man Zou followed four Americans (and a Chinese guide) as they traveled between Beijing and Shanghai by bicycle. While making this arduous trip, Reid also takes time to step back and examine China from an economic standpoint—how many urban parts of the country are rapidly escalating, while leaving behind the many rural areas in an outdated form of living. And it is in this aspect where I think Go Ganges! misses an opportunity. Many who see this documentary may not know anything about the Ganges River or of India at all, and after seeing the film, still only get a sliver of the bigger picture. Yes, there is a lot of pollution and poverty in this part of the world, but we never get a real sense of a cause or what is being done to correct it. It would take a massive social effort to clean the river; unfortunately, the filmmakers don’t delve into that area. Instead, we have scenes of Kelley and Thomas trying to open a can of food, or trying to get comfortable in whatever dirty hotel room they find themselves in.
Maybe that was all they wanted to do with the film, to capture their experience and nothing else. That’s fine enough, but a part of me wanted to see more than what was given, to delve a little bit deeper than what we see on the surface. This is still a very enjoyable documentary. Kelley and Thomas keep us engaged with their testimonies, and you can tell that they have a lively spirit and an urge to do something different, even if it is a little risky. One of the surprises was how generous and kind the Indian people were, offering to help them when they broke down and even providing places to sleep at night. But after a while, constantly seeing their vehicles break down and get fixed got a bit repetitive. Go Ganges! is as much about the adventurers as it is about the adventure.
Go Ganges! screens Saturday, May 4 at Grand Illusion Cinema.
Final Grade: B-