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Sonoma County Filmmakers Shine Light on Troubled Waters


Sonoma County Filmmakers Shine Light on Troubled Waters

By Jonah Raskin

All water is local, water mavens often say, perhaps forgetting the cycle that brings water to the sky and then returns it to the earth as rain. Still, water feels local. Perhaps no waterway instills more local reverence than the Russian River, the source of life for countless vineyards, ranches and farms, a playground for kayakers and a landscape for artists.

The Russian plays a starring role in a new, compelling film by three local filmmakers — William Sorensen, Stella Kwiecinski and Nancy Econome — who first met as graduate students and who worked in Silicon Valley and the wine industry where they apparently saw more than they wanted to see about the chemistry of water and wine. Their movie, “The Russian River: All Rivers, the Value of an American Watershed,” offers a Valentine for waterways and watersheds and provides a bridge of hope across environmentally troubled waters. It also shows the challenge of making a documentary about a public resource that has been largely privatized in California and that makes millions for wineries all across the state.  

“We’re used to living behind the camera, not in front of it,” Sorensen explains from his home in Santa Rosa. “We mean to foreground the river and to background ourselves.” Neither he nor Kwiecinski (to whom he’s married) or Econome appear on screen, not even for a nanosecond, though local environmentalists including Brock Dolman, Don McEnhill and David Keller play strong supporting roles even as they let the Russian River speak eloquently for itself.

“Our film is not meant to be an entertainment,” Sorensen tells me. “Our purpose is to educate viewers.”   

Indeed, “The Russian River: All Rivers” educates and informs for 120 solid minutes, though the color images on screen provide the kind of eye candy that make lessons in history, economics and ecology relatively easy to swallow. At a recent screening in Petaluma, a handful of viewers gripped about the length of the movie, but no one walked out, and most of the members of the audience stayed for the lively discussion after the credits rolled and the lights came on in the theater.

Make no mistake about it. Passion informs nearly everything about the film, from the way it was shot to the way it was edited. Nancy Econome brought to the project her emotionally charged memories of childhood along the Russian River. Nancy Kwiecinski imported recollections of walks with her grandmother along the Hudson River in Upstate New York. Sorensen infused the film with a sense of the anger he felt while standing in the Russian River one afternoon and realizing that it was too hot, too foul smelling and too unhealthy for humans and for fish habitat.

A sense of moral imperative motivated all three filmmakers. “We felt that we had to get our picture out now at a time when people are receptive to the whole issue of water,” Econome says. She adds, “We started before the drought. This is not a drought movie, but a water movie.”

Russian River in Autumn

Still, water and drought are two sides of the same California coin. Almost everyone who has lived here for more than a few years knows that sooner or later drought rears its ugly head and that, like a monster from the deep, it never goes away forever.

Every image on screen massages the message that water is sacred, that human beings have abused it and that the abuse must end or else human life will end. On camera, David Keller, the Bay Area Director of Friends of the Eel River, explains, “If we stay on this same trajectory we will not have clean water, we will not have cold water, we will not have ample water. We will have destroyed these resources and with that, frankly, goes the civilization.” From now on, no one can say we haven’t been warned.

Don McEnhill, the Russian River Keeper, amplifies Keller’s perspective with dire water stories of his own. Brock Dolman, the Director of the Water Institute in Occidental, adds his voice to the stream of voices that includes Marin County’s environmental workhorse, Marty Griffin, and Maude Barlow, a Canadian activist and author who worked on water issues for the United Nations. Barlow nearly steals the show when she complains that corporations treat water in much the same way that they treat oil and gas: as a resource to be sucked out of the ground and sold on the open market. Water has rights, she insists, just as human beings have rights.

Sorensen, Kwiecinski and Econome made their film with the hope that it would add volumes to the current discussion about water, drought and rain. They would like big wineries to take a tip from biodynamic wineries such as Benzinger’s in Sonoma County: dry farm and restore the damage to the earth by digging deeper and deeper wells and by planting vineyards dangerous close, environmentally speaking, to the Russian River — and all rivers in California.

“I want to walk carefully here,” Sorensen says. “We love wine, especially wine from this area. Our concern here is that wineries do a better job than they have done when it comes to water. There’s a real role for heroism here. We hope that some of the big wineries will step up to the plate and make a difference.” He and his fellow filmmakers walk perhaps too carefully and too softly for fear of offending the great god of the wine industry that exports water in the form of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and that tells citizens that if it weren’t for vineyards every inch of ground would be covered with tract houses.   

Still, “The Russian River: All Rivers” shows that filmmakers rooted in local places can steer stories about water into the great watershed that links the whole world and that makes life itself possible.


Saturday, January 10, 2015 at 7- 9:30pm Cinema Numina's Relevant Film Discussion Group The Church of the Incarnation 550 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa, CA 95401 Q&A to follow film. Register: tickets-14598473427

Wednesday, January 28, 2015 at 6:00 - 8:00pm Co-op Annex 749 C South State Street Ukiah, CA 95482 RSVP is required by calling 707-462-4778 or on line:

Saturday, February 7, 2015 at 3:30pm Sebastiani Theatre, 476 1st St E Sonoma, Ca 95476 reserve seats:

Thursday, February 12, 2015 at 7pm Summerfield Cinemas. Screening sponsored by Sierra Club Redwood Chapter. 551 Summerfield Rd, Santa Rosa,

Friday, February 20, 2015 at 6:30pm Sebastopol Center for the Arts 282 S High Street Sebastopol, CA 95472 Tickets at Brown Paper Tickets or call SCA at 707-829-4797

Thursday, March 12, 2015 at 7pm Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center, 1118 Fourth Street San Rafael, CA 94901

Friday, March 20, 2015 at 7pm Sonoma Community Center. Screening sponsored by Transition Sonoma Valley, 276 East Napa St., Sonoma


The Russian River: All Rivers LLC

P.O. Box 427
WindsorCA 95492 

THE RUSSIAN RIVER: ALL RIVERS – THE VALUE OF AN AMERICAN WATERSHED is a fiscally sponsored project of the International Documentary Association (IDA), 501©(3) nonprofit arts organization.  Contributions in behalf of THE RUSSIAN RIVER: ALL RIVERS – THE VALUE OF AN AMERICAN WATERSHED are payable to IDA and are tax deductible as allowed by law.