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When the River Runs Dry

In January 2019 viral videos showed grown men near Menindee weeping as they held Murray Cod many decades old that had perished in the green oxygen starved soup that is all that remained of the Darling River. Australians were horrified by the news that the Darling River, known as the Barka to its people, was in a state of ecological collapse. Politicians blamed drought. Ecologists and water management experts placed the blame firmly on the over allocation and over extraction of water – sometimes illegal – by cotton growers upstream. But who is to blame? And what can be done?

  • Rory McLeod
  • Rory McLeod
  • Peter Yates
  • Bridget may
  • Project Type:
    Documentary, Feature
  • Runtime:
    52 minutes
  • Completion Date:
    December 1, 2019
  • Country of Origin:
  • Country of Filming:
  • Language:
  • Shooting Format:
    Digital 4k
  • Aspect Ratio:
  • Film Color:
  • First-time Filmmaker:
  • Student Project:
Distribution Information
  • SBS
    Country: Australia
    Rights: Free TV
  • FanForce
    Country: Worldwide
    Rights: Theatrical
Director Biography - Rory McLeod

Rory McLeod is a filmmaker with a passion for nature, the environment and social justice. Rory was raised in the deserts of Central Australia. He lived in the Pitjantjatjara lands for 5 years (aged 2-6) and 12 years in Alice Springs (aged 6-18). Many of his films and videos are about the beauty of the landscape and its creatures. In a world where humans expand their concrete borders ever further; these things need a voice.

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Director Statement

When the River Runs Dry was born on an impulse. In January 2019, images and videos began to filter through social media of a massive fish-kill on the Darling/Barka River near Menindee in NSW. The devastating sight of enormous Murray Cod, dead in a man’s arms, led first to distress, and then anger.
Sensing that this was a pivotal moment in Australia’s environmental history, we, (Peter Yates and Rory McLeod) moved quickly, and were on the road to Menindee within a few hours, to document the event and its impact on the people of the river.
We arrived too late in Menindee – all the fish had sunk to the bottom, leaving only foul green water and a horrible stench. Then began a harrowing period, interviewing people, camping by and filming the remains of the Darling, simply capturing the moment. Problems on the Darling had been on the periphery of many people’s awareness for years, but now here was ‘the bill’, the cost of over-extraction of water and institutional indifference manifest in a dying river.
We did not approach the research and filming of When the River Runs Dry from a partisan position, unless that partisan position was the side of the River. It simply could not be right that where the Darling was not dry it was a lurid green, and that millions of fish were dying.
With his background in anthropology, it was the most natural thing for Peter to interview the people of the river – the Barkindji, and to hear their stories of disenfranchisement: anguished wounds that stretched back over generations, but which now bled afresh with the realisation that the Barka, their Mother, was close to ecological death.
To the voices of indigenous people, we added balance and explanation in the form of interviews with eminent scientists, other community members who were affected, and environmental lawyers.
Interviews were to be shot using predominantly natural light in locations relevant to the subject matter which was generally along the river. This was a story of loss, but it was important to show that there was still plenty to save along the Darling/Barka.
To show some of the things still there we focused on bird life, particularly around the river floodplains and the dwindling Menindee lakes. The on-going drought in western NSW provided ample opportunity (shifting sands, starving kangaroos) to build a sense of the catastrophe that was engulfing ordinary people and the land. That this catastrophe was is

large part man-made is conveyed through footage of the dry riverbed, off-take pipes, massive earth-wall dams and laser-levelled irrigation farms: mute testament to a river system drained of its resilience.
When The River Runs Dry will have a naturalistic look so that the feeling of being out on country can be achieved visually. The environment is hot and generally high contrast with the sun beating down hard most of the day. To achieve a natural look in this environment we have used cameras that can capture a high dynamic range of light.
Camera positioning will aim to be shadow side of the action allowing for a play of light. In scenarios that allowed for some control of light such as interviews, people were mostly back lit by the sun and side filled with a bounce. This has been done in a subtle way to give details to shadows but at the same time avoid having an unnatural (lit) look.
Arial views will be captured with a drone camera.