Documenting the Ganges, From Start to Finish

Alex Cunningham is a filmmaker and alumnus of SIT Study Abroad India. His newest film, Rose Tree Apple Island, was an official selection at the 2012 Raindance Film Festival and the 2013 Victoria Film Festival.

Ganges River 1It is my birthday, a Saturday in April 2011, and I squat down on a rock and dip my cupped hands into an ice cold river in northern India. This water has only been in liquid form for a few moments now.  I am at the glacial source.

As I watch my hands turn purple from the freezing water it, strikes me that these drops of water will eventually make their way downhill and support hundreds of millions of people throughout the Indian subcontinent.

I had seen the holy Ganges River before on several occasions without making the connection. The river did not look anything like this downstream in Haridwar, Varanasi, Patna, or Kolkata, and yet she was the same river.  Her personality and appearance were different, but millions revered and relied on the same body of water.

My excursions with SIT and the independent study project that followed took me to different places on the banks of the Ganges.  My project had nothing to do with the river, but after my emotional realization, I decided that I had to return to India to make a film about it.

A film about what, though? Water scarcity or the controversial dams?  What about the incredible pollution or how climate change is affecting the river?  I could have approached it from a spiritual standpoint, too, as the Ganges is revered as a literal goddess by Hindus and a journey to her waters is perhaps the most widely practiced pilgrimage in the world.

There is certainly a place for those films, but was I the one to make them?  I remembered that what captivated me aboutGanges River 2 the river was how it looked and sounded, and how it changes as the geography around it changes.  I thought about how important this river was to many people, but how they all interacted with it differently.

I set out to make a film free of bias, though I knew this was inherently impossible.  My goal was to depict the Ganges as honestly as possible, in all her beauty, and all her disruption.  My goal was to have viewers understand and feel what I felt when I was moved by her.  I simply attempted to translate my sublime relationship with the Ganges into film.

The film is stripped of argument. There are no interviews or narration, no postulations or hypotheses. I’m not trying to argue anything specific. It is not a standard documentary, and I try not to tell the viewer what to think.

Keep your eyes, ears, and mind open, but allow them to wander. If this film has a genre, it is not documentary or experimental—it is experiential.  Experience it.

For more information about the film, visit

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