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Journey on the James 

Award-winning documentary “Headwaters Down” navigates the James River’s health, history and importance at RVA Environmental Film Fest.

click to enlarge The team behind the James River journey film "Headwaters Down": (from left) Stephen Kuester, Will Gemma, Justin Black, Dietrich Teschner, Andrew Murray

Scott Elmquist

The team behind the James River journey film "Headwaters Down": (from left) Stephen Kuester, Will Gemma, Justin Black, Dietrich Teschner, Andrew Murray

“Nerve-wracking.”

Surely, Will Gemma is describing taking on Balcony Falls in a canoe filled with film equipment. Or being threatened at gunpoint while trying to camp. Or any other pivotal impasse during the 13-day, 250-mile paddle that yielded “Headwaters Down,” a new documentary about the recreational joys and environmental resilience of the James River.

“I think I was sweating every second,” he recalls.

Actually, Gemma, the film’s narrator and one of three co-creators who labored collaboratively over every cut, is reflecting on sitting in the safer confines of Gallery5 as “Headwaters Down” was screened for the first time in November of 2021. He needn’t have worried, though, the documentary recently was named winner of the 2022 Virginia Environmental Film Contest.

The next in-person showing, presented in association with the RVA Environmental Film Festival, will take place on Sunday, Feb. 27 at the Byrd Theatre.

"If it plays half as well as it did at Gallery5, it’s going to be amazing,” says Justin Black, who was instrumental in bringing together the five-person crew that navigated the James over those 13 days in May and June of last year. Black, who served as co-creator and -director alongside Gemma and their friend, actor Dietrich Teschner, credits that first showing with instilling valuable confidence. “I don’t think we knew it was going to be a festival film until we showed it and saw that there was a good response,” he says.

In fact, when they booked Gallery5, there wasn’t even a film to show. Black, Gemma and Teschner worked tirelessly from July until the November premiere, wrangling the footage they’d captured along the James in order to convey what it’s like to travel from the start of the river – the confluence of the Cowpasture and Jackson rivers in Botetourt County – to the fall line here in Richmond.

“If we can make it feel like 10% of what it really feels like to be out there, we’re doing our job,” Black says.

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So how does a group of self-funded first-time filmmakers bottle that magic while also portraying a vital waterway’s balance of beauty and vulnerability?

By turning their limitations into a triumph of in-the-moment storytelling.

Every shot you see in “Headwaters Down” was captured during their trip. “Because this is our first film, we had no budget,” Justin Black notes. “I saw that we could do it all ourselves, but we had to have certain limitations.”

One crucial decision was excluding third-party imagery, such as news reels and old photos. What’s left is a present-day snapshot that, drone footage excepted, places the audience at river level, as if you’re the sixth member of the expedition.

“We ultimately presented a living, current state of the James,” Will Gemma says.

The film still dives into the river’s history, as well as the threats posed by industrialization. We see remnants of Kanawha Canal, which was proposed by George Washington during his younger days as a surveyor, as well as abandoned tires and camping waste. While the impacts of coal ash pollution and sewage overflows are less apparent, Gemma’s narration, which often finds the familiar cadence of a David Attenborough admonition, bridges the gap between what’s seen an unseen, driving home a message of ecological urgency.

“People take it for granted that it’s going to be healthy, and it’s not,” Black says, noting that the James isn’t just a place for recreation. “That’s a huge reason why people should care, but the most universal reason people should care is that’s our source of drinking water.”

“Headwaters Down” balances its environmental mission with healthy doses of levity. On that front, Gemma cites the influence of Bruce Brown, the director and narrator of classic surf documentary “Endless Summer.” Much like Brown, Gemma strikes a mischievous tone in spots, acknowledging mishaps and alluding to campfire hijinks without dwelling on them, and doing so with a clear sense of reverence.

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Gemma grew up on the northern end of the Shenandoah Valley, in Winchester, VA, with “a big backyard and lots of space to roam,” as he puts it. His outdoors-inclined family fostered a love for the natural setting that surrounded him. “From the first time I really spent time on [the James River], it shocked me at how beautiful it is.”

Black grew up in Powhatan County, which is bordered on the north by the James. He tells a similar story of early appreciation for the waterway and the park system that lines it. “I grew up going to the river from a super-young age. And I always loved Pony Pasture when I was young. We would ride through the rapids just on our butts.”

Black, an art-handler by trade who has built a following releasing folk music under the name Saw Black, found his interests returning to the water a handful of years ago. That’s when he first paddled the upper James River, where “Headwaters Down” begins.

“I was blown away by the beauty of this mountainous section of the James. In Richmond you don’t even realize that 250 miles up there it’s a completely different-looking river.” He’s now pursuing a certification that would allow him to lead rafting trips.

Gemma, Black and Dietrich Teschner met as students at University of Virginia. The two additional members of the 13-day, three-boat voyage were Andrew Murray, who played bass with Richmond band, Recluse Raccoon, and Stephen Kuester, an old-time pedal steel guitarist and avid fisherman. Both are music scene contacts of Black’s, though they’d also been part of previous paddles that laid the groundwork for the one they caught on film.

“We’d done trips together as a group before,” Black notes, “so it was just natural that that was going to be the crew.” Less natural, at least initially, was wielding expensive film gear while traveling in a canoe.

“We did a short trip on the Rivanna River where we tested gear,” Gemma notes. “I think at the beginning, myself especially, I was being a little precious with some of our new gear. Dietrich at one point was like, ‘Hey, these aren’t toys. We’ve really got to use this equipment to get the most out of it.’ [That] opened the floodgates to being almost reckless with it to get the shot.”

“Pelican cases were a really good investment,” Justin Black adds, “and some insurance was a little bit of peace of mind on the expensive gear.”

Black turned out to be one of the bolder camera operators, which is evident during the film’s most tense scene: an argument with armed river-goers who weren’t happy with where the team set up camp that night. One had a gun. The “Headwaters Down” crew made the wise decision to relocate.

“Some of the most crucial footage we got of our run-in with those violent guys – all that footage was caught by Justin,” Gemma says, “because he had the wherewithal to pull out a camera.”

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That frenetic ugliness stands in stark contrast to the film’s many serene moments. A great blue heron in flight. Freshly picked berries being passed around by Andrew Murray, who served as the expedition’s naturalist. Stephen Kuester nimbly flat-picking around a campfire.

Black brought two cheap guitars along with the goal of adding to film’s sonic atmosphere, though he decided against inserting songs he’s recorded as Saw Black. “I resisted having much vocals in the soundtrack, or even distinguishable lyrics,” he says, resulting in what he calls “this natural chorus of sounds from the water to the bugs to the frogs to the guitar.”

After the trip was over, he improvised additional guitar meditations with certain scenes in mind, complementing the audio recorded onsite. He tried out new tunings, looking for organic reactions. “I wanted there to be a fluid feeling to the compositions,” he says. “I wrote all of the music and everything, and then Stephen added some amazing pedal steel. Pedal steel is just the prefect river instrument, I think, because it’s so liquid-sounding.”

A soundtrack combining the sounds of the trip with those meditations is in the works, as are additional festival submissions. “We’ve thought about this film as a local or regional piece,” Black says, “and so the biggest compliment to us is being part of these local festivals.” The three he’s hoping they’ll be accepted to are the Richmond International Film Festival, Skyline Indie Film Fest in Winchester and the Environmental Film Festival in D.C.

Then there are the longer shots: “If we get into MountainFilm out in Telluride or something, we’re going to be completely caught off guard,” Black says. “But we went ahead and applied.”

“Headwaters Down” may not be Black and Gemma’s last go-round with the festival circuit. They’re planning to start a small production company and make more films about Virginia’s watershed. One project they see around the bend is an episodic series about the tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay. They’re also talking about circumnavigating the Chesapeake on a sailboat.

“We want to make it a little more refined without losing some of that magic that we think makes ‘Headwaters Down’ a different and hopefully good viewing experience.” Gemma says.

“Headwaters Down” will be shown on Sunday, Feb. 27 at the Byrd Theatre. A virtual screening will be held the previous Sunday, February 20. Both are presented by the RVA Environmental Film Festival. For more information, visit linktr.ee/headwatersdown.

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