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‘A River Film’ Documents Beauty and Complexity of Okana(o)gan Valley

IJC admin | 2017/11/22

By Anna Warwick Sears, International Osoyoos Lake Board of Control

 A flyer for the documentary. Credit: Ascent FilmsThe line to the Oliver Theatre wrapped around the corner for the theatrical debut of “A River Film” in Oliver, British Columbia.

The new movie was produced and directed by Ascent Films for the Washington State Department of Ecology, with funding through the International Joint Commission (IJC)’s International Watersheds Initiative and local support from the Okanagan Basin Water Board (OBWB).

The 40-minute documentary highlights the many interconnected issues of managing flows in this international watershed and semi-arid climate. From flood control to fish, farming, recreation and residential water use, communities on both sides of the Canada-US border share the same needs and concerns.

Al Josephy, who spearheaded the project for the Department of Ecology, said the title was intentionally kept simple because the film speaks to issues common to western North America.

“We all live near a river,” Josephy said. “This film is about the Okanagan, but the story is the same for the Salmon, the Fraser, the Deschutes, the Wenatchee and San Juan – all the rivers and all the people who live by and work with their river.”

Josephy said he was inspired to make the film by a comment from US IJC Commissioner Rich Moy: “It’s all happening in this watershed. You folks need to tell this story.”

The film struck a chord with the sold-out crowd of 300 people who came out on a drizzly October night to the Oliver Theatre. A week before, a small pre-release showing for the International Osoyoos Lake Board of Control created a buzz via the local news media. People came from as far as Tonasket, Washington, 64 km (40 miles) to the south, and Lake Country, British Columbia, 125 km (78 miles) to the north.  

They share this river, and they know and love it. When the screening was over, all 300 viewers stayed for a 45-minute question-and-answer period with filmmaker Jiri Bakala and Dr. Anna Warwick Sears, executive director of the OBWB.

People line up for the premiere in Oliver. Credit: Ascent Films
People line up for the premiere in Oliver. Credit: Ascent Films

The Okanagan watershed is the traditional territory of the Syilx people, including the Okanagan Nation in Canada and the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. Their work to restore the salmon fishery and their deep historical perspective as a salmon people is an inspiring theme, emerging again and again throughout the film.  

The Syilx people’s love and reverence for the water is echoed by all of the 17 women and men interviewed for the film, across a range of backgrounds and interests. It’s also echoed in gorgeous photography – circling the seasons from winter to spring, summer and autumn. Perhaps because of the semi-arid climate, and the possibility for contention, no one takes the waters for granted and those in the film expressed the great need to work together to protect the region’s lakes and rivers.

The Department of Ecology is now working with the IJC and the filmmaker to distribute “A River Film." Many community groups have expressed interest in local screenings. It will be released online in 2018. Interested parties should contact Bakala at

Anna Warwick Sears, Ph.D., is a member of the Canadian Section of the International Osoyoos Lake Board of Control and executive director of the Okanagan Basin Water Board in Kelowna, British Columbia.

 A still from the film. Credit: Ascent Films
A still from the film. Credit: Ascent Films

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