'Return of the Cuyahoga': The Film Fest doc that gets at the fiery heart of our oh-so-foul river


According to a new documentary, the pictures that made Cleveland's 1969 river fire famous were actually of an earlier fire.
This blog is way better if listening to “Burn On,” by Randy Newman:

On Saturday, enough Clevelanders braved a Siberia-esque snowstorm to pack Tower City Cinemas for the Cleveland Film Festival. And while most of the films seem to be about far-from-Ohio topics (did you see the one about the hermaphrodite Scottish whaler facing the onset of globalization?), a few are closer to home . There’s even a film about that big watery thing that snakes through our city and that hammered people occasionally fall into: the Cuyahoga River. The WVIZ-produced Return of the Cuyahoga chronicles Cleveland’s history with the river. As you might have guessed, it’s a pretty abusive one. ... Cuyahoga was screened as the second part of a rivercentric twin-billing. A short film, Black Waters, about the polluting of the Indian Ganges river, preceded it. A cute idea, if Black Waters didn’t appear to have been produced by a drunk 13-year old. Besides the general tedium of the film — we know it’s a short Indian documentary preceding a PBS production, but come on, let’s spice it up here, people — there were a couple of pretty glaring problems. First, the film’s subtitles were were totally different than what the subjects actually said. This would have been totally cool, but the people were speaking English, which made it a little obvious. Making matters worse, the film started skipping about 20 minutes in, and then reversed to near the beginning, which sucked, and then it shorted out completely, which was a welcome relief to a really confused audience. When Return of the Cuyahoga’s opening credits appeared on screen, they cheered, which probably seemed unfair to the other filmmakers in attendance, whose work didn't get warm applause solely for not being an unprofessional Indian river documentary. But Cuyahoga went on to actually earn the applause, telling a tale of a river that was black and bubbly throughout Cleveland’s history as an industrial powerhouse. And that 1969 river fire that officially earned us the title of “Mistake by the Lake”? In reality, that was Cuyahoga’s sixth fire, and one of the more mild ones. In 1918, it turns out, seven men were killed when an oily river inferno spread to a shipyard. But the 1969 fire garnered the most publicity because it was seized on by early environmentalists, leading to a movement to clean rivers across the country. So if you cast kind of a sidelong glance (and squint really hard) at the issue, you can see it as Cleveland being at the forefront of environmentalism. After covering its history, the documentary moved onto the definitely-cleaner-but-still-a-bit-fecal current state of the Cuyahoga, and how, even without much remaining industry to speak of, Cleveland’s industry is still screwing over nature. Those metal walls that gird the river give no habitat to Cuyahoga’s fish. So downriver from the city, the river is brimming with fish, but down by the lake, there’s just one lonely small-mouth bass named Tony. The film details the proposed effort to build fish enclaves into the wall, which sounds excellent, except for the fact that this is Cleveland, which means the project will be contracted out to Jimmy Dimora's third-cousin (also named Tony), cost $38 million, and result in apocalyptic flooding downtown. The film gave its audience much to think about, but as the theatre emptied, at least one woman could only think about how much that Ganges movie sucked. “When it started talking about the Ganges, I was so confused. I thought this was about the Cuyahoga,” said the woman, who had watched three festival movies earlier in the day. “I was like, have I been watching too many movies? What the hell is going on?” Our thoughts exactly, sister. For a schedule of when to see Return of the Cuyahoga on local public television, where it will be thankfully detached from its mildly retarded Siamese twin, visit its website here. – Gus Garcia-Roberts


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