‘Yakona’: Film Review

Courtesy of Yakona
An exhilarating sensory immersion.

A Texas river gets its close-up in an experimental nature study

With nary a word of narration and only one explanatory onscreen title, at the very end, the hybrid documentary Yakona tells a captivating story through a rich blend of sound and image. As the story of the San Marcos River in Central Texas, it’s one of extraordinary beauty, ancient culture, rare species and endangered ecosystems.

Directors Anlo Sepulveda and Paul Collins, who also served as DPs, have recorded stunning scenes of the natural world and combined them with found footage and dramatic re-creations. Their impressionistic visual essay is a bracing plunge into the life of a river, and is often purely poetic, yet it’s not without practical concerns. The filmmakers’ argument — that such wild places matter, and must be protected — is implicit in the fascinating creatures and locations they’ve recorded. Adventurous filmgoers who appreciate direct cinema and top-notch nature docs will dive right in.

The outstanding camerawork, both aboveground and underwater, showcases an astounding array of turtles, lizards and insects, and reveals an assortment of plumed inhabitants that would be any birdwatcher’s delight. Metaphoric touches, whether the camera is looking skyward through water or melding nighttime constellations with the riverbed, express a sense of wonder without getting heavy-handed. The strong visuals are enhanced by Justin Hennard’s artfully layered sound design and Justin Sherburn’s impressively varied score.

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Following the waterway from source through rapids to estuary, Yakona is more celebratory than alarmist. Without benefit of expert testimony or statistics, its points about the desecration of nature are fully felt in views of the river’s littered recreational areas. It’s only in the production notes that the filmmakers point out that the Census Bureau has named San Marcos, halfway between San Antonio and Austin, the fastest-growing city in the United States. But through excerpts from a recent speech about the river’s resuscitation, the film’s audience learns another crucial fact: The area surrounding the San Marcos headwaters is one of the longest-inhabited places in North America, and many consider it a sacred spot.

The relationship of native peoples to the river is a key element of the film, which takes its title from the Coahuiltecan word for “rising water.” Sepulveda and Collins create scenes of prehistoric Clovis people living in harmony with their environment, and latter-day Comanches in violent clashes with encroaching European settlers.

At first jarring amid the flora- and fauna-centric passages, the dialogue-free reenactments don’t always feel necessary. But they’re exceptionally well done, and the directors amplify their resonance in footage that connects them to the present: the recent discovery of burial grounds near the river; healing ceremonies on its shores; the removal of tourist-attraction structures from its waters.

That structure removal is one of the film’s haunting oddities. Deft use of archival clips captures the 1960s heyday of Aquarena Springs theme park, with its glass-bottomed boats, swimming piglet and “mermaids.” The park’s recent dismantling — part of the river’s ongoing restoration — is something to behold. Predatory birds roost on derelict signs while cranes lift the “submarine theater” from its decades-long perch in the water.

And there’s the strange and disturbing beauty of an underwater ballet between a turtle and a bird — a predator-and-prey mini-drama that the filmmakers leave unresolved until the final, post-credits image. It’s worth waiting for.

Production company: Yakona.org
Directors:Anlo Sepulveda, Paul Collins
Producers: Jillian Hall, Kevin Huffaker, Samuel Trim, Geoff Marslett, Clint McCrocklin
Directors of photography: Paul Collins, Anlo Sepulveda
Costume designers: Jessica Quiroga, David Shirley
Editors: Tim Tsai, Anlo Sepulveda, Paul Collins
Composer: Justin Sherburn
Underwater camera and photography: Anlo Sepulveda, Paul Collins, Dean Brennan, Riley Engemoen
Sound design: Justin Hennard

No rating, 83 minutes