New film documenting multi-day canoe trip highlights the Virginia river’s health and history
The James River is special to the people of Richmond, Va. Residents regularly use the James in a variety of ways: rock hopping around Belle Isle, biking over the T. Tyler Potterfield Memorial Bridge, paddling the many rapids, or gazing at it from high up in Hollywood Cemetery.
Though the river is well-loved, it also has plenty of problems, both environmental and historical. That’s why filmmakers and long-time friends Justin Black, Will Gemma, and Dietrich Teschner decided to make a film that celebrates the river’s resilience while highlighting the issues and challenges it’s still facing.
To create “Headwaters Down,” which debuts at this week’s Richmond International Film Festival, the friend’s loaded expensive camera gear into canoes and paddled from the headwaters of the James in the Blue Ridge Mountains down to the Fall Line whitewater in their hometown of Richmond, documenting their 13-day, 250-mile journey.
“We hope our film encourages people to get out and experience the joy and awe that James inspires in us,” said director Justin Black. “We believe that through experience people will find purpose to help maintain and create a better James for the future and we want to educate our viewers by sharing the long list of environmental issues the James has faced and still faces.”
The film highlights a range of issues, including the remains of the Kanawha Canal, the fight to save the ancient burial grounds and historical capital of the Monacan Indian Nation, the impact of Dominion Energy’s power plants on the river, excessive damming, and other environmental obstacles unique to the James. Once the most polluted river in America, the James’ overall health has improved in recent decades.
“Thanks to organizations like the James River Association (JRA), over the past 50 years it [the James River] has gradually gotten cleaner and safer,” Black said. “However, according to the JRA’s biannual report, the health of the James actually declined for the first time in recent decades from 2020 to 2022. It’s important to stay diligent and work together to make sure our beloved river doesn’t fall back into disrepair.”
For the filmmakers, the river journey came with many trials, including losing a boat to the tides and being threatened at gunpoint. But the film also showcases the river’s natural beauty, like the spectacular views at the James River Gorge.
“This film is for everyone,” Black said. “Our overall goal is to continue making films that tell the stories of Virginia’s rivers and waterways in hopes to raise awareness and encourage others to honor and care for them.”
The team has launched an Indie GoGo campaign to raise money for a future film in the works that will document a paddle from Richmond to the Chesapeake Bay. With stops at multiple historic places along the way, the film will feature conversations with people working along this stretch of the James, as well as insight into some of the most infamous environmental disasters on the river.
All photos from their journey down the James courtesy of Justin Black.