Return to the River – Style Weekly

“Always come back to the river when in doubt.”

Will Gemma’s words are a mantra wrapped in a promise reborn as a narrative strategy — the through-line connecting the observations, images and memories that make up the new documentary, “Headwaters Down: Tidal River.”

The film is a true sequel. For its predecessor, Gemma, his fellow co-directors and producers Justin Black and Dietrich Teschner and two of their friends, Stephen Kuester and Andrew Murray, set out to canoe the Upper James River, which runs from the confluence of the Cowpasture and Jackson rivers in Botetourt County to the fall line in Richmond. Across 13 days and 250 miles, they sought to capture the river’s beauty and resilience, receiving an on-the-job education in documentary filmmaking and premiering the resulting feature-length debut, “Headwaters Down,” in November 2021.

In June 2022, the same crew picked up where they left off, following the James from Richmond to where it widens and flows into the Chesapeake Bay. The premiere of “Tidal River” will take place at the Byrd Theatre on Tuesday, Feb. 27, and while it will be the film’s first showing, the premiere carries with it heavy notes of finality for its makers. “It’s really starting to feel like we finished the James,” Teschner says. “That chapter is finally coming to a close.”

(From left): Justin Black, Dietrich Teschner and Will Gemma. Photo by Scott Elmquist

Delving deeply

For “Tidal River,” the five men swap out canoes for kayaks, paddling away from their hometown loaded down to the water line with equipment and provisions. In more ways than one, they immerse themselves in the Lower James, which grows more massive by the mile, and which played a massively consequential part in the colonization, conflict and industrialization that birthed the United States of America. “You slowly see this river become what feels like an ocean,” Teschner says.

The lack of rapids, vast distances between river banks and caution around taking on water combined to impose a deliberate pace. The five friends respond by taking their time when confronted with natural beauty. They drift unhurriedly toward a curious fox, converse with a barred owl and marvel at a colony of great blue herons and the cypress forest they call home. “We live [nearby] so we take it for granted, but then there’s all these places that are kind of inaccessible unless you’re in a boat or paddling,” Justin Black says. “It felt like we were in a faraway land.”

The pace also afforded an unflinching look at Virginia history. Passing Hopewell foregrounds the Kepone disaster, a 9-year stretch of the 1960s and ’70s during which the toxic, non-biodegradable insecticide was dumped into the James, decimating the Virginia fishing industry and shuttering river recreation for more than a decade. Images of smokestacks and HAZMAT suits drive home the risk that lax regulation poses to livelihoods and drinking water. “We’re born and raised in Virginia,” Gemma says. “All five of us live within a mile or two of the river. We care deeply about Virginia and its environment.”

The James River’s comeback from Kepone has become a point of pride. “Its reputation is growing,” Gemma says of the turnaround. A little further downstream, the story broadens to include landmarks whose legacies are more complex — and changing.

Elevating perspectives

While doing some advance campsite searching — no easy feat on a section of the James lined by industry and private property — Gemma arranged a trade for permission to camp on the banks along Fort Pocahontas in exchange for videography services. The job? A reenactment of the Civil War battle that happened there in 1864. Headwaters Down has evolved into a commercial production operation, but Gemma was dubious: “[I] never thought we’d shoot a Civil War battle,” he says.

It turned out to be a source of inspiration. They learned this particular battle was the first Civil War engagement won in Virginia by a majority Black regiment. The reenactors themselves, some of whom are interviewed in “Tidal River,” were also an inspiration. In addition to dedication and attention to detail, they exhibited an ability to transcend the racial and political divides that plague so many aspects of 21st-century American life. “There is this brother and sisterhood there,” he says. “To see these reenactors breach what has been impossible for everyone else in this country to do was wild.”

An image from the journey in “Headwaters Down: Tidal River.” Photo courtesy of the filmmakers.

“I think we’re all blocking ourselves with our own assumptions from going out and interfacing with those narratives and those stories,” Black says. “What happens when you go out there is it’s so much more vivid and wild than you can imagine.”

Jamestown was similarly revelatory. The crew paddled up to the settlement, past recreations of the Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery, expecting the monument to colonialism they remembered from youth. Instead, they were “humbled,” as Gemma’s voiceover puts it, by what they found: a coordinated commitment to a more complete accounting of what happened when England established its first permanent North American settlement in 1607. The film features a conversation with Dave Givens, director of archaeology at Jamestown Rediscovery. John Smith’s name wasn’t mentioned once.

“They were so much more concerned with the sea level rise,” Black says. “They’re deciding in real time whose history needs to be uncovered, [so] they can prioritize that.”

Ahead of the trip, Black got in touch with Daniel Firehawk Abbott, a Nanticoke descendant and Native American interpreter at Jamestown. Initially reluctant to appear on camera, Abbott consented after learning about the nature of the five friends’ trip. “Oh, you’re paddlers,” Black remembers Abbott saying. “He was like, ‘I’m a paddler. You know what? Bring the cameras.’” Abbott rhapsodizes on camera about his own love of being on the water, and he delivers one of the film’s most striking insights while talking about European settlement: “It was inevitable that they would come … It’s not what happened; it’s how it happened.”

Daniel Firehawk Abbott, a Nanticoke descendant and Native American interpreter at Jamestown, consented to being the film after he heard it was being made by paddlers, like himself.

At both sites, and in the editing process after the trip, the makers asked themselves which stories are theirs to tell. “We had trepidation about these topics, being five mostly white guys,” Gemma reports. He says they landed on listening as their modus operandi: “We offer no perspective from ourselves … We are here to learn, they are here to teach.”

Quiet leadership

Like the original “Headwaters Down,” “Tidal River” balances information with nourishment for the heart and soul. The group’s chemistry radiates throughout, thanks to riverside guitar strumming, commiseration over poorly pitched tents and compliments on one another’s campfire cooking. Each member of the crew makes an individual mark as well. Justin Black often frames the the challenges ahead, and footage of evening downtime is often soundtracked by his and Andrew Murray’s guitar work. (Black performs and releases music as Saw Black; his latest LP, “Signal,” came out in November.) Murray’s knowledge of flora and fauna shines through at several points, as does Dietrich Teschner’s wry humor. Will Gemma’s narration adds context and poetic reflection. Then there’s Stephen Kuester’s buoyant attitude and gentle wisdom, which eventually reveal him to be the documentary’s spiritual center.

“He was just saying profound shit all the time,” Gemma says. “He is the main character, in a way. He’s the quiet leader of the film.”

A Bald Eagle after a fight.

That depth is most evident after the five kayakers cross under the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel and reach Fort Monroe, marking the end of the 10-day trip and of the larger endeavor of capturing the group’s love of the James on film. Back on sand, Kuester, who is about a decade older than the rest of the crew, shows the emotions of one who understands how rare the entire experience was.

“That was 23 days to be on the river,” Gemma notes. “That’s so hard to make happen for five people … People have kids and get married, all these different things. I think Stephen just had that perspective.”

The moment calls to mind a lyric from Jason Isbell’s 2020 song, “River.” Of a river’s mouth, he muses: “Running ’til you’re nothing / Sounds a lot like being free.”

In truth, progressing from the recreational paradise of Richmond’s fall line to the military and commercial shipping behemoth of Hampton Roads may be more accurately, though ironically, encapsulated in John Prine’s classic ode to aging, “Hello In There.” Prine sings that “Old rivers grow wilder every day;” and if you view the human tendency to consume, build and industrialize as a type of careening wildness, “Tidal River” forms a unique proof-point. This is a water-level document of how the broader human experiment has played out in North America.

Ragged Island Camp.

“From the start of the James to the end, you’re going forward like 20,000 years through history,” Teschner says.

As this group of paddlers moves forward on dry land, there’s an upcoming premiere at the Byrd Theatre, which will include a Q&A with the crew and some of the experts in the film, then a March screening at the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art in Virginia Beach.

Black, Gemma and Teschner are still weighing what’s next. Submitting their first film to festivals proved fruitful; “Headwaters Down” was named the best Virginia-made film at Richmond International Film Festival and won grand prize in the RVA Environmental Film Contest. But going the festival route risks delaying wider distribution, and they feel compelled to reach viewers sooner rather than later, given the generous funding they received from the Cabell Foundation, and the fiscal sponsorship of the James River Association.

“I really hope that we can make it available to as many young people as possible — anybody that wants to learn more about that section of the river,” Black says.

There’s also continued commercial work ahead for Headwaters Down Productions, and there’s talk of further documentation of the Chesapeake. Though with two feature-length films in the can, the trio is more clear-eyed about setting in motion a major project. “We know that’s not something we can just jump into,” Gemma says.

Nevertheless, fans of their deeply attentive, mission-driven filmmaking are likely hoping they’ll follow Gemma’s advice: When in doubt, return to the river.

“Headwaters Down: Tidal River” will premiere at the Byrd Theatre on Tuesday, Feb. 27. The film will begin at 7 p.m. and a Q&A with the filmmakers will follow at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased via Eventbrite

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