‘Between Two Rivers’ is a poignant documentary portrait of Cairo, Illinois

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Between Two Rivers
Directed by Jacob Cartwright and Nick Jordan
UK, 2012

Partway through this documentary portrait of Cairo, Illinois, one resident addresses the various accounts of the city’s history: “There’s a little bit of truth in everybody’s story… there’s no literal black and white truth. You can’t boil us into a five second sound bite.” Part of Between Two Rivers’ success is down to its rejection of a narrative directing blame at single sources for the troubles of the historic town. It allows long unseen archive material and the remaining townspeople to present snapshots of Cairo’s tumultuous past, one of racial turbulence and economic decline, and of its community in the present.

The town is located at the convergence of both the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, effectively joining the North and South of the United States. This factor was a reason for its early thriving; one interviewee compares its early days to Las Vegas, while another suggests that “the whole American experience went down right in this community”. Experiencing major economic downturn, Cairo is now full of derelict and abandoned homes and businesses. The documentary frames its exploration of the town’s history with the latest crisis to affect its residents: during the floods of spring 2011, the rising rivers threatened to submerge the town, forcing an emergency evacuation and a controversial diverting of the water to local farmland. Cairo’s numerous woes are explored, including notorious incidents of lynching and boycotts, though these are weaved together, in non-chronological fashion, with insight into other areas, creating a well-rounded portrait that avoids exploitation. This can be attributed to its open, sincere interviews with various individuals, which never seek to patronise its subjects or paint any of them in an overtly positive or negative light.

Between Two Rivers is directed, edited and shot by artists Jacob Cartwright and Nick Jordan, making their feature-length debut with this documentary. Appropriately, given their background, the film succeeds well on an aesthetic level, with beautifully composed, self-shot visuals of the contemporary status of the town’s streets and buildings, as well as the floodwaters. Combined with the archive footage, the film has an appealing lyrical quality, one aided by the lack of a consistent narration driving particular points across. An original music score aside, the film’s soundtrack is composed of the interviews and the readings of numerous past writings regarding impressions of the town or its history, including an unimpressed reaction from one-time visitor Charles Dickens. With its strong, engrossing presentation, the documentary is a particularly poignant and fair portrayal of Cairo, with explorations that are especially potent in a current time of huge financial crisis and uprisings regarding social injustice.

Josh Slater-Williams

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