DocFest 2021 review: Songs for the River
Subjects / Residents6
Matthew Turner | On 10, Jun 2021
Director: Charlotte Ginsborg
Watch Songs for the River online in the UK: DocFest 2021
Songs for the River is streaming as part of Sheffield DocFest – find out more about the festival here.
Director Charlotte Ginsborg is one of several residents in Brandrams Wharf, a London housing co-operative located by the river Thames. When the coronavirus pandemic hit and the UK went into full lockdown in March 2020, Ginsborg began filming her fellow residents, their weeks punctuated by regular Saturday singalongs, with everyone joining in from their respective balconies and walkways.
As the year goes on, the residents find different ways to pass the time. Some, such as frontline NHS radiologist Mary, continue to work, while others, including arts administrator Rachel, take up long-forgotten hobbies, such as sketching. Some become more philosophical, musing over their own mortality and a sense that time is running out.
Of course, Covid-19 makes its presence felt too. Two of the residents (John and Eileen) are forced to shield because John is undergoing cancer treatment, making them extra-reliant on the building’s community spirit. And two more actually contract the virus.
Throughout the film, Ginsborg marks the passage of time with audio snippets of the news briefings and government press conferences, which she chooses to play over various profile shots of the residents looking none too happy. That’s both an amusing choice and an apt one, since, let’s face it, most of us can relate.
Inevitably, the conversations and reflections turn political, with the government coming in for harsh criticism from all corners – one resident memorably points out that they have “no humility and no agility” when it comes to learning from their mistakes. The residents of Brandrams Wharf may not be all that representative as a collection of people (the majority of them seem to work in the arts), but they provide a microcosm of the pain and anger experienced by the whole country, especially when Christmas arrives and some of them take the heartbreaking decision not to see their families.
It has to be said that Ginsborg has an enviable collection of neighbours, as they all seem extremely likeable – they’re funny, intelligent and mostly optimistic, positive people. As a result, watching the film, you develop favourites and look forward to their next appearances.
The film has a number of moving scenes, from the unexpected singing ability of some of the residents (Rachel does a great cover of Like a Prayer, someone else really surprises with a rendition of Over the Rainbow) to little moments, such as Mary showing a painting done by one of the children in the hospital ward – it reads “Come on Mary, you can do this!” and features a picture of her in her mask.
The subtitle of the film is “Reflections on a Pandemic” and Songs for the River has done well by being one of the first out of the block in terms of personal pandemic docs. The only problem with the film is more to do with personal taste, in that large numbers of people will probably never want to hear the words “pandemic”, “coronavirus” or “lockdown” ever again.
That said, there is something comforting in watching other people go through the same things we’ve all been through and feeling the same feelings. Great final shot, too.
Songs for the River is streaming at DocFest 2021 until 5.45pm on Friday 11th June.