For a movie about murder, This River is quiet and unassuming. The short documentary from directors Erika McPherson and Katherena Vermette opens with two men in a motorboat on the Red River, muttering to each other as they drag the bed in search of bodies. This is also how the film ends, and it takes up a good chunk of the middle.
One could misinterpret that description as that of a boring film, but that would be a mistake. This is what the aftermath of murder or unsolved disappearances really looks like.
The men are part of Drag the Red, an organization of volunteers who search the Red River for the remains of any of Canada’s more than 1,200 murdered or missing Indigenous women. The organization was borne out of necessity: the negligent and racist practices of local police towards the families of missing Indigenous women has resulted in total inaction from law enforcement in many of these cases.
The film is shot and edited with calm poise. There’s an ethereal quality to the work that emphasises the weight of grief and the natural power of the river, rather than dwelling on the grim physical aspects of Drag the Red’s work, or the tragic cases that make it necessary.
Vermette is already an accomplished poet and writer (her excellent novel The Break was released earlier this fall). She interjects the film with occasional poetry and narration. It’s This River’s biggest mistake. While her verse surely works on the page, it’s an editorial touch that the film doesn’t need. The poetry of her and McPherson’s images, of the work and conversations they capture, carries more weight on screen than written words ever could.