A subtle combination of documentary and fiction filmmaking, Luo Li’s remarkable Rivers and My Father was inspired by stories from his father’s childhood. Li inventively structures sound, image and narration, evoking the ways in which memory operates.
The filmmaker and his family grew up along the Yangtze River (Chang Jiang) in China, which serves as the backdrop on which the film’s stories unfold. Seen from a distance in both time and space, and in relation to contemporary forms of migration, these stories flow like rivers on a map of the past. The film begins in the nondescript offices and hallways of York University with an employee who is about to retire. The man comments on the passing of time and how 2010 once seemed like the distant future. This conversation sets the tone of the film, where the ordinary details of daily life take on a universal quality. These unique personal experiences convey collectively understood feelings of, as Li puts it, “inbetweenness, uncertainty and the indeterminacy.”
Images from the map library at the University segue to a rainy street in China. The stories of Li’s family begin here and are illustrated by a suite of elegantly composed, elliptical, repeating shots: a boy and a woman walking up steps; a man swimming in a wide body of water; a trio of boys walking along a riverbank. The audience’s perception of timelessness, rupture and “inbetweenness” is enhanced by the fact that stories from the past are illustrated with contemporary images. The shots don’t always immediately or directly refer to the narration, sometimes preceding and sometimes following it, a technique that creates an engaging delay in the revelation of the film’s internal logic.
Li explains that he was motivated to make the film to not only document the personal stories of his family, but also to represent aspects of what an ordinary Chinese person’s life was like in the past, how their lives were affected by the environment they grew up in, and how their memories intersect with the present. Li writes: “Together, these cross-generational personal stories become an allegory in regard to the modern history of China.… History is often dominated by grand narratives that centre on significant events and powerful figures. However, I believe that ordinary people’s personal memories are equally important. These memories can provide us with different angles and perspectives to look at the present and plan for the future… With Rivers and My Father, I hope to contribute to the documentation and preservation of local history through the representation of ordinary people’s stories and memories.” –Images Festival