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Songs For The River: Film Review

Charlotte Ginsborg’s Songs For The River is a technicolour collage of hope, fear, and resilience. This film is a moving reminder that, in a time defined by plague and pain, community is alive and well.

When asked why she decided to make this film, director Charlotte Ginsborg said that it became her way of framing and processing the pandemic experience. Shot from April to December 2020 in Brandrams Wharf Housing co-operative on the banks of London’s Thames, Songs For The River documents the highs and lows of life during the Covid-19 pandemic. A searing image of honesty and resilience, this film feels at once profoundly relatable and incredibly dated, perfectly exploring the disorientating human experience that was 2020. 

When I say Songs For The River feels dated, this is not intended as criticism, rather a revealing exposure of the incredible pace of the pandemic that seemed to be both accelerating at incredible speed and dragging painfully in what felt like the longest year to date. As Ginsborg herself said after the screening of the film at the Open City Documentary Festival, ‘It’s interesting how quickly we forget’. From the earliest moments of the film, there is a very real sense of uncertainty and fear, of confusion and dread. This film is ultimately about collective experience and similar emotions I’m sure felt by most people around the world, but it is incredible to see how detached the present day feels from those early weeks as the world now begins to open up. One of the residents of the housing cooperative featured in the film was a front line NHS worker who saw the true state of London’s intensive care units as they spiralled into crisis.

If you didn’t already think that NHS workers were Gods amongst men, this woman will convince you. As her neighbours remained at home and incessantly disinfected door handles, Mary put herself on the front line with the simple explanation of ‘well, you have to do the job’. Another of Brandram’s residents, Piotr, worked in the NHS as a mental health nurse who suffered from COVID-19 himself during the making of the film. Piotr reflected on how the daily death tolls reported on the evening news affected his own mental health profoundly, despite experiencing relatively mild symptoms, truly illustrating the worldwide panic that gripped so many of us. Piotr also shed light on the cracks in societal attitudes that were becoming more and more clear. He said that he felt proud of the work he was doing for the NHS but was saddened that the efforts of himself and so many others would likely go unrewarded, a sad reflection on the injustices of modern society. 

loud and clear reviews songs for the river
Songs For The River (Courtesy of Open City Documentary Festival)

While the subject matter of the film is undoubtedly pretty bleak, it is not without joy, without hope, without love or music. Throughout the lockdowns of 2020, the residents of Brandram hosted weekly singalongs in the communal spaces of the building. One particular scene, early in the film, shows the residents, stood apart along the tiered walkways of the building, singing Johnny Cash’s “Ring Of Fire” with unparalleled joy and enthusiasmThe lyrics of that song and the image of community in which they were sung seem so pertinent in that moment. As the world was descending into chaos, ‘as we fell down, down, down’, and the flames just seemed to go higher, what held us together was humanity, hope and each other. Songs For The River is filmed against the backdrop of fear but fear is not its subject. Its subject is hope, humanity and togetherness, shown through the eyes of a community that kept each other going through kindness, music and a good sense of humour. 

At a time when nature really seemed to be doing its worst in some ways, it seemed in others to be healing, something perhaps symbolically shown through the recurrent shots of nature, from potted plants to the banks of the Thames, that feature throughout the film. Sound is layered expertly throughout the film with news reports layered over the action creating an evocative feeling of claustrophobia, preoccupation and panic that was in, many ways synonymous with the pandemic experience.

One of Brandram’s residents said during the first lockdown that ‘this is not a time to just fill, this is a time to reflect,’ and reflection becomes a key theme of the film. Despite the uncertainty and worry of the pandemic, many of those featured in the film said they felt calm, as though the world had slowed down, that people stopped to say ‘hello’ again. Another neighbour stated how the river had slowed, so much so that you could see to the river bed an image rarely, if ever, seen. Still water on the Thames, for me, really symbolises how the pandemic allowed a time to understand the foundations, the bedrock of society. The beating heart of London is not its economy or its industry but its people and its communities, this is something that Songs For The River showcases and celebrates with vulnerability and pride

Songs For The River is an important documentation of an extraordinary time and the ordinary people that helped us through.

Song For The River premiered at the Open City Documentary Festival, taking place 8-14 September in London, and 13-23 September online.

Songs For the River: Trailer (Open City Documentary Festival)
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