GIRAF Animation Festival streaming Canada-wide Nov. 19-28

River Lethe

One of the wonderful things about a film like River Lethe is that no description can actually do it justice, and no interpretation is definitive.

Abstract art of lines of charcoal being smeared over a sketchbook page to look like river ends, or tree branches, or the wings of a bird.

In the Greek underworld, Lethe is the river of forgetfulness. Flowing around the cave of the god Hypnos, brother of Thanatos and personification of sleep, its waters are to cause a forgetting so complete, it's synonymous with oblivion.

Although it's completely abstract, Amy Kravitz's River Lethe can be seen as a film about forgetting, or erasure. It's there in the artistic materials, which the synopsis points out include "rubbed and erased graphite" along with other unconventional materials. And it's there in film's five distinct movements, taking the viewer through a journey towards oblivion without so much as a single figurative drawing to lead the way.

One of the wonderful things about a film like River Lethe is that no description can actually do it justice, and no interpretation is definitive. But just for the sake of it, here's one possible experience of it.

The first thing we see is a stormy sea—or perhaps a rising tide, or a frothing river. Its form is never defined, but its flow is utterly hypnotic, as pure and captivating as staring at a campfire at night. It's unclear if we're floating or sinking, swimming or drowning, or if there's even a difference.

Next comes the film's most haunting section. Spectral figures float across the screen, sometimes gently drifting, sometimes violently wrenching themselves through space. Something about them feels electric, haunted, deeply sinister. They say that the forgetting Lethe causes is a step along the path to reincarnation, a restorative process full of potential, but the second section shows the violence of the process, the fearful stripping away of the spirit.

The third movement brings a constant flurry of movement, of integration and disintegration. Lines move around the page like dust blowing in the wind, iron filings tracing invisible lines, or murmurations creating impossible figures. Each one assembles itself only briefly before crumbling, pieces trailing off like the force of holding together is too much.

The fourth section is the briefest, warm synthetic sounds and waves like radio signals breaking down into chaos and dissipating, a chaotic blur that resolves into the fine cosmic dust of the final section. This is the end of the process, an oblivion that echoes the grandeur of nebulae and northern lights, the boundlessness and wonder of a sprawling universe.

In a fascinating interview with Edge of Frame, Kravitz talks about the process of making her films as one of constant revision and reinvention, letting the film evolve and speak for itself, that it's almost more found than made. There are themes, and context, but no answers beyond the experience of viewing—and it's exactly that ability to create an experience so rich in possibility that makes Kravitz's films so compelling. She would go on to further expand the emotional and experiential power of black-and-white abstract animation in 1988's Trap and 1998's Roost, and is currently a professor in the film department at Rhode Island School of Design.

dir: Amy Kravitz
syn: A non-narrative and abstract visual poem in five parts. Its title refers to the underworld river of forgetfullness. The drawings are created from non-traditional animation media including rubbed and erased graphite, pigment, and aluminum powders to make an animate surface of unusual richness.
music: Caleb Sampson
1985, 7 minutes, color, sound, 16mm

1985