In River, opening in theatres on Friday, March 11, 2016, NGO doctor John Lake (Rossif Sutherland) finds himself on the run in Laos after he ends up killing a man while intervening in the sexual assault of a local girl. The film is the feature film debut for filmmaker Jamie M. Dagg, who previously directed the short films Waiting (2005) and Sunday (2008), as well as music videos for the likes of Broken Social Scene, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and Bedouin Soundclash. River is part of a busy year for actor Rossif Sutherland, who also had a leading role in Paul Gross’ Hyena Road, as well as a supporting role in Bruce McDonald’s Hellions.
Jamie M. Dagg first got the idea for River during a period when he did a lot of travelling in Southeast Asia. “I was really fascinated with the idea that we all have the capacity for violence within us and what would that perfect storm of circumstances be that could allow that to surface in an individual,” says Dagg. “I was also thinking about somebody who sets out to do something good and there’s a negative, unexpected outcome and how that relates to the thousands of little decisions that we make on a day to day basis and how one little miscalculation can have a dramatic effect on your life and everything can take a turn for the worst.”
“It was a difficult environment to work in with no film infrastructure, very far away from home, with a very small crew on the run, and it took a special kind of like-minded team to be able to pull this off.”
River is the first North American film to shoot in Laos, a Southeast Asian country bordered by China, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand. With the country being a communist dictatorship with no real film infrastructure, it ended up being a real challenge for Dagg and his crew of thirty people from seven countries to shoot River, particularly since all the equipment had to be brought into the country due to a lack of facilities to accommodate foreign film productions. Dagg also describes dealing with the bureaucracy within Laos’ government. “They rule the country with an iron fist and they are very protective of how they are portrayed,” says Dagg. “They needed to have approved the script, they needed to get us permits to actually scout in the various regions of the country, they needed to approve the actual filming, and then they assign you a government minder, who is with you the entire time you’re in the country.” There were many additional challenges for Dagg and his crew, such as being aware what was culturally acceptable, dealing with sickness from poor sanitation, as well as the heat.
Rossif Sutherland agreed that River was a very difficult film for him to work on. “It was not a glamourous experience,” says Sutherland. “It was a difficult environment to work in with no film infrastructure, very far away from home, with a very small crew on the run, and it took a special kind of like-minded team to be able to pull this off. We had no real idea how far we could go, we were just trying to finish the days.” When he was cast in the role of John Lake, Sutherland had just finished work on Hyena Road and he was ready to take a break and spend time with his family, especially since he was sick with bronchitis while filming Hyena Road. However, he found River to be a hard film to refuse. “I don’t know what got into me, but I read Jamie’s script and I couldn’t put it down and I couldn’t say no,” says Sutherland. “We spoke on Skype, I auditioned for him, and then I got word that Jamie was willing to work with me and then the adventure began.”
Sutherland describes the character of John Lake as a moral person, who ends up committing a wrong, while trying to correct a wrong. Sutherland knows that the decisions John makes in River can be frustrating or illogical to the audience, but he also believes that the character knows he is not innocent of his crime. “He’s on the run because he doesn’t feel like he can explain his story and there’s one thing of just being up front and just giving yourself up to authorities and saying ‘listen, this is what happened’ and being very clear minded and straight about it, but he’s not clear minded,” says Sutherland. “So he just runs and he is running not just from authorities, but he is running from himself, because he knows that ultimately he will never be free again. Regardless of the fact that should he be physically free or not, he’s a person of morals and knows that he has done something wrong and how is he going to live with himself? That’s the question that the film poses.”
Ultimately, River is a universal and simple story about the inner struggle of a good person, who ended up doing something bad when he wasn’t thinking straight. “It is an exploration in human nature and the choices one makes and the instinct of survival and the consequences of one’s actions,” says Sutherland. “This film was very much just an exercise in trying to find some truth in the life of somebody who finds himself in that position.”