Stolen River Director Krisztina Danka: We Are All Responsible for the Yamuna River

Posted by Daniel Salazar, January 23, 2018

By Daniel Salazar

Independent films often take up causes that have gone unnoticed, and a filmmaker’s efforts to raise visibility can make a big difference. In this exclusive interview, Krisztina Danka, director of Cinema Verde Official Selection and LIFFT Best Green Film winner The Stolen River, discusses the creation of her new documentary.

A family is filmed taking a ritual bath at a toxic river in Delhi, India (The Stolen River, 2017)

While travelling in India, Krisztina Danka, documentary filmmaker and executive director of Karuna Productions, was approached by a group of young girls from a village along the Yamuna river. Many of the locals were getting sick; many were dead; but the world did not seem to really care. “Please help us solve this situation,” the girls told Danka. “We’re here in this tiny Indian village and nobody hears our voice. Please help us make our voices heard.” This was the birth of The Stolen River, Danka’s new documentary on the disappearance of the Yamuna river.

The Yamuna, at 887 miles the longest tributary river in India, provides drinking and bathing water to 57 million people and is worshipped as a goddess in Hinduism, but over the last few decades its clean waters have been replaced by a flow of open sewage. Danka herself has experienced the effects of the river’s pollution, once getting sick shortly after bathing in it’s waters, but even so there was no way she could have prepared herself for what she was getting into. The facts were shocking. The cancer and child mortality rates had skyrocketed. According to the World Health Organization, 23% of children in this area suffer from arsenic and lead poisoning and other water-borne diseases. The locals were outraged. The river, central to their culture and livelihood, had been stolen from them.

Village girls are shocked by the pollution of the Yamuna River in Dehli, India (The Stolen River, 2017)

“I did a lot of research,” Danka explained. She talked to locals, doctors, and environmentalists in an attempt to “assemble a complete picture.” However, while these expert opinions certainly make up the backbone of the film, at its core Stolen River is fundamentally a narrative. Stolen River is about Shitakshi, a 22-year-old Indian-American woman who is tasked with portraying Yamuna in a dance performance. Stunned by the state of the river, she is joined by a group of young girls (some of whom had originally asked Danka to make the film) in a journey upriver to the Himalayas, to discover what happened. Meanwhile, behind the camera, Danka conducts what she describes as “investigative journalism through their eyes.”

Kristina Danka, director of The Stolen River

When asked about her directorial approach to documentary filmmaking, Danka simply said “There’s no general answer.” She does believe her approach has shifted over the years though, moving from the broader focus of TV documentaries to the bottom-up approach of many of her contemporaries. She likes to tell stories about people, so while her documentaries always aim to educate the audience about any given topic, she also wants to take advantage of the medium to capture a microcosm of human experience by exploring characters that are literally real, breathing people. She then pulls together these pieces to form a fuller picture, allowing for films that are large in scope but still firmly grounded in people’s emotions and individual experiences. “I find it is easier for the audience to identify with people, rather than an issue,” Danka remarks, and thus they are more likely to be changed by the film.

The Stolen River is about the world’s shared culpability for the pollution of the Yamuna river. It was made with the hope that it would inspire collective action to stop an environmental catastrophe, but Danka does not want audiences to think of this as just an environmental issue.. “The Stolen River is an environmental film,” she emphasizes, “but it is also a film about spirituality.” The Yamuna is sacred in Hinduism. The people in the film then are not just fighting for the environment and well-being of their community, but for the survival of the very heart of their culture, a culture that dates back millenniums. Danka, who dedicated her PhD to study of Indian culture, puts it in stark terms: “Without the holy places, their culture will also disappear.”

People worship the Yamuna River in Vrindavan, India

The Stolen River has received awards and accolades worldwide since its release. It was named the Best Green Film at LIFTT India, a Top 5 Finalist at the International Kuala Lumpur Eco Film Festival in Malaysia (the first and only environmental film festival in Malaysia), and is a semi-finalist at the Green Earth Film Festival in LA, California.

The film will have its US premiere at Cinema Verde’s 9th Annual Film & Arts Festival on February 10th at Heartwood Soundstage. Danka, a Gainesville resident, will be present at the screening for a Q&A session with the audience. Danka, who was born in Hungary and lived in New York for many years, continues to travel frequently but says that “Gainesville is her base.” “I love that everything is green,” Danka says, “I think it’s great to have an environmental film festival here. It’s a very appropriate place.” She believes this is especially true given that Gainesville is a university town, stressing the importance of bringing pieces of art that can inspire the youth. “They are the ones who will inherit this planet,” she adds, “They need to see what the problems are and gain the confidence that they could make a difference”.

Children protest against pollution in the Yamuna River in Delhi, India

Creating The Stolen River has profoundly affected her, noting, for example, how she now “reads labels like crazy” while grocery shopping. “This is how globalized the world is,” she explains. “Our daily choices will have an effect on people living thousands and thousands of miles away. We need to be conscious, vigilant, and kind.” She hopes her film will affect audiences the same way. Her favorite animal is the manatee, because it has no natural predators, but neither does it prey on anything. Like it, she wants to live in a way that does not cause harm to others–people, animals, or nature–, and through her work, encourage others to do the same.

You can watch the trailer for The Stolen River.


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