At its headwaters in northern Minnesota, the Mississippi River is a narrow creek, still more or less pristine.
By the time it reaches the Gulf of Mexico, more than 2,300 miles downstream, it has accumulated so much nitrogen and phosphorous that its mouth is surrounded by the world’s largest dead zone – nearly 6,000 to 7,000 square miles of oxygen-starved water in which few species can survive.
The river and its relationship to the communities that live along its banks is the subject of The Mighty Mississippi, Emerson MFA student and filmmaker Keely Kernan’s documentary thesis project and winner of a prestigious Princess Grace Award. The project will feature an online multimedia component featuring short vignettes, an interactive map of the river, and public advocacy resources.
“I just think now, more than ever, we need to reconnect with natural resources we use daily and [with] where they’re coming from,” Kernan said from St. Louis, halfway through her journey downstream to film for the documentary. “The project for me is a way to explore how to reestablish that connection to water, to our natural resources. I’m trying to let the river speak for itself as much as possible.”
The Princess Grace Awards recognize and financially support emerging artists in film, theatre, and dance, and are selected by a panel of experts in the respective fields. The program is administered through the Princess Grace Foundation – USA, a nonprofit established in 1984 by Prince Rainier III of Monaco to honor the legacy of his late wife, former film star Grace Kelly.
Past winners have included Tony Award winning playwright Tony Kushner and actor Leslie Odom Jr., Golden Globe winner Oscar Isaac, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Artistic Director Robert Battle, American Ballet Theatre’s Gillian Murphy, True Detective director Cary Fukunaga, SpongeBob SquarePants creator Stephen Hillenburg, and MacArthur “Genius” grant winner and choreographer Michelle Dorrance.
“It will fundamentally be very helpful,” Kernan said of the award.
Kernan said the inspiration for the film came from her mentor, Sharon Day, an Ojibwe “water walker” who leads spiritual walks along America’s rivers to raise awareness of pollution and the importance of water. Kernan has done videography for Day’s group, NibiWalk, as well as the Indigenous Peoples Task Force in Minnesota.
The Mississippi River is not just a shipping channel through the middle of the country, it also provides daily water for more than 50 cities and receives waste from communities, businesses, and farms – the major source of the chemicals causing the dead zone.
Kernan said while the Mississippi is the star of the film, she’s capturing the voices of the people who live along the river, and whose lives are intrinsically bound to its waters – whether they know it or not.
“We all live downstream from someone,” Kernan said in her project summary. “I want the audience to come to understand the complexity of the river, and the transformation that occurs from its beginning to end.”
Kernan, a freelance photographer and filmmaker whose work has focused on the environment and natural resources, has produced pieces for The Guardian, The Huffington Post, and CCTV Africa.
Her work has been screened and/or exhibited at the DC Environmental Film Festival, Carnegie Institution for Science, Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, American Conservation Film Festival, the Environmental Film Festival at Yale, Charleston International Film Festival, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Gordon Parks Museum, and Emerson’s own Bright Lights Film Series partnering with MIT’s Women Take the Reel Film Festival.
She said as a graduate student at Emerson, she’s appreciated the sense of experimentation and collaboration.
“I think what’s great about Emerson is that there are a ton of different resources and there’s obviously a community there of people doing different things when it comes to fiction film, documentary film, and experimental film,” she said.