Yakona: SXSW 2014 Review
Beautiful and at times genuinely profound, it’s an experiment that pays dividends.
Published on March 15, 2014 | Filed under SXSW 2014

Yakona is a stunningly beautiful portrait, (nature documentary seems the wrong term) of the San Marcos river. It’s an ecosystem that may not seem like the most glamorous of locations but is rendered in Yakona as an abstract beautiful mosaic, filled with hidden struggles and endlessly reoccurring cycles.

Yakona is impressively ambitious, seeking to do nothing less than demonstrate the ebb and flow of nature and humanity against the backdrop of a single Texas river in less than 80 minutes. The crazy part is that it comes pretty close to achieving its goals. Eschewing talking heads, or unnecessary context, Yakona juxtaposes its nature footage against vintage home movies and commercials from an old amusement park that used to operate along its banks. With its heyday played out against the rotting, overgrown hulk that had the structure has become, it is a haunting testament to the impermanence of man’s efforts and a clever commentary on both our tendency to commodify and tame nature even as we celebrate it. Throughout we are given glimpses of the raw natural beauty of the wilderness, a Herzogian lack of sentimentality at the attempts of animals to survive in it, and a careful look at how the river remains central to the life of the people who live by it even in a disconnected age.

I’ve bemoaned before how the “democracy” of digital has led to a generation of sloppy, undisciplined independent filmmakers, but Yakona offers a heartening counterpoint that makes me excited for the potential of filmmaking in the digital age. It’s a film that must have been edited down from what had to be a staggering amount of footage. The kind that the prohibitive cost of film would never had allowed. Yakona makes the most of its freedom, finding just the right poetic moments to convey itself.

Yakona really only over reaches in some staged, docudrama footage interspersed in the film, most centering on Native Americans and their encounters with settlers. These segments feel at odds with the overall tone of the film, as if someone watched Koyaanisqatsi and decided that it needed subplots, and a few shots, including one of an innocent Indian child watching as a bedraggled white guy rise out of the river wielding a cross, reach the browbeating lack of subtlety of that the rest of the film avoids. These scenes aren’t so much bad as unnecessary, which makes them more confusing. None of them are half as poetic, fascinating and communicative as the jaw dropping long shot of a drowning bird desperately trying to escape from a snapping turtle that has latched onto its leg.

Still, despite a few missteps Yakona is on the whole a great experience. Beautiful and at times genuinely profound, it’s an experiment that pays dividends.

Bryce's book, Son Of Danse Macabre is currently available for the Kindle.