THE RIVER GUARDS
directed by Aaron Kalischer-Coggins
Faced with the enormous environmental and health crisis of a contaminated river and city, "The River Guards" tells the intimate story of a dedicated community of grassroots activists fighting for 30 years against corporate negligence and government bureaucracy, and with a new and contentious cleanup plan for the Housatonic River on the table, how they are dealing with the uncertain future.
21 minutes / color / 2:1 / USA / Tributary Productions LLC / 2020
2020 DC Environmental Film Fest
2021 Wild & Scenic Film Fest
2021 ReFrame Film Festival
I grew up a stone’s throw from the Housatonic River, a beautiful but highly polluted waterway that snakes through the picturesque small towns, farmland, and mountains of Western Massachusetts. As a kid, I spent countless summer days canoeing, kayaking, and sometimes (inadvisably) swimming in the river. The river was a form of natural entertainment for me - a wild, vast, and ostensibly pure body of water, complete with pretty birds, fascinating small mammals, and a wealth of small tributaries and oxbows to explore. As I grew older, I became fascinated with the nebulous history of the river and the many conflicting perceptions and arguments about what to do with it.
From 1932 until 1977, General Electric dumped countless tons of PCBs into the river and surrounding neighborhoods near the GE plant, where they sank into the sediment and floodplain, contaminating wildlife and leading to health issues for locals. “The River Guards” tells the story of the Housatonic River and the tireless activists, environmentalists, and community members who have spent decades fighting for the river, and now, with a new and contentious cleanup plan on the table, how they are dealing with the uncertain future.
The story of the Housatonic is an important cautionary tale, representative of many of the post-industrial towns across the United States (and world). With politicians weakening clean water regulations and corporations continuing to pollute our waterways, the story of the Housatonic can be seen as a model - the aftermath of what happens when a corporation is allowed to contaminate a river and community, as well as how hard it is to clean up the damage once it has been done.
Perhaps most importantly, the film highlights the value of perseverance and community action for making change at the local level. I hope this film will inspire people to become involved with their own local waterways and environments to see how they can help protect and clean them.
Aaron Kalischer-Coggins is a documentary filmmaker from Lenox, MA, passionate about telling intimate stories at the intersection of the environment and politics. He runs a doc production company called Tributary Productions, and previously worked as a producer at Discovery, Inc.