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Yet another stunning multi-part documentary about our planet (or part of it) from the BBC leads me to wonder if I know what I want anymore. A little over two-and-a-half hours, this look spans the length of the Ganges river in India, breaking down to about 45 minutes per 500 miles, if you choose to look at things that way. Ravishing visuals and side trips to places you wouldn't expect to go make this an entertaining and informative way to spend an evening or two. Producers cast their nets wide, however, bringing up that all-too-common bugaboo (a little forthcoming ecological disaster) called global warming, which can be both depressing and can make viewers hunger for more information than such a doc can deliver. Packed in among a nearly endless parade of breathtaking shots is a message that makes me long for my youth in the '80s, while making that era's imminent nuclear catastrophe seem manageable and quaint.
The documentary takes a logical path as it meanders downstream to the end. We start with episode one, titled Daughter of the Mountains, at the source of the Ganges in the Himalayas. Actually there are four 'sources' and at least two ways to pronounce the name of that tremendous mountain range. Distracting British accents aside, stunning, airless and arid images take us from the Ganges' glacial origins through many sites of religious devotion. As benefactor to India's half-billion mostly Hindu residents, the Ganges is worshipped as a potent goddess. From ecstatic ablutions where the river's four sources combine, we end in the foothills with a look at how numerous species of animals (many endangered) also depend on the river's largesse.
River of Life (episode two) continues as the Ganges and tributaries flow across the vast landscape of India; creating and supporting life while being used and abused by the burgeoning forces of humanity. From ancient cities to modern metropolis, unique stories and animals (like the river dolphin) outline the importance and effect the river has in maintaining balance with its ecosystem.
Nowhere is the delicate nature of that balance, and the monolithic ways in which it manifests, more in evidence than on the last stop of the Ganges journey, a chapter called Waterland. Here in the delta we find the city of Calcutta, farmers planting on tiny, newly created islands, and the very essence of unpredictable wilderness - a series of gigantic mangrove swamps known as the Sunderbans. There, giant angry honeybees mingle with desperate man-eating tigers, weird mud-hopping fish and towns-folk gleefully watching the rising river eat away their land as men race to dismantle and move houses. It's all part of the majesty of monsoon climate, in which months of torrential rains cause the Ganges to change the landscape, and are followed by months of drought as the Ganges almost literally sucks back into itself.
This last chapter gently taps around a theme that's troubling - as the effect of so many humans relying on the Ganges (and inadvertently messing with global climate in general) appears to be exaggerating the intensity and effects of monsoon climate. While not browbeating viewers (something best left to Mr. Gore - not that I disagree with him ...) The Ganges documentary shows living circumstances unimaginable to most Westerners, dramatizes the plight of numerous species of animals disappearing as humans throw things out of whack, and speculates among other things that in a few decades the Ganges may no longer make it to the Indian Ocean during drought season. For all the staggering beauty on display the message is of dim hope and stoic amazement at what's happening.
But boy, that staggering beauty, and the cleverly dramatic camerawork sure makes for enthralling viewing. Cameras wallow in the mangrove mud as those weird fish poke out their heads, follow along in energized desperation as men smoke out killer bees to collect some honey - all while looking over their shoulders for the odd tiger-attack, and rise gracefully over fields of harvesters, or rise through the trees with a bucket used for catching fruit. To become at one with the river and its environs is perhaps the best way to begin to understand the level of its importance - perhaps to envision some ways to draw life back into balance. For going toe-to-toe with the river, looking more deeply, (and in unexpected places) and delivering some knowledge you might not want to hear, Ganges is certainly recommended.
Ganges is gorgeous and released in anamorphic 1.78:1 ratio enhanced for widescreen TVs. The image is quite clear, sharp and filled with detail that holds strong through a deep depth of field. Colors are rich and naturalistic, well saturated and (for what it's worth) quite evocative, creating moods and heightening the extremes of climate shown. Lots of time-lapse photography (lots) holds up well, with misty clouds repeatedly breaking over the tops of the Himalayas (you say Him-uh-LAY-uh, the narrator says Him-MALL-yuh) and looking quite gorgeous and smooth doing it. Even night-vision shots look good.
According to my seemingly full-featured screener, English Dolby 2.0 Stereo (as well as 2.0 Hindi and 2.0 Bengali tracks) is available. The level of stereo activity is resolutely active and lively, with front and center narration sharing space with bubbling waters, twittering birds and townsfolk chattering here and there. Music is beautiful and possesses a good range, while the narration track was a bit confusing, frequently raising and lowering in volume. Was this an effect of my faux surround sound setting? Nope, turned it off. Some fault in my cables? I don't think so, as far as I can tell my other DVDs sound OK. Or is it some fault of the screener, or a combination of many problems? We'll call it a screener defect and hope I don't need new gear, but it's something to pay attention to.
In addition to those Hindi and Bengali Audio Tracks the DVD comes with English Subtitles and two featurettes. Number one is a 26-minute Behind-The-Scenes featurette showing the extent camera crews went to in order to get those shots, including a sunrise over the Himalayas and footage of black bears in the foothills. It's definitely cool to see the gear, dedication and thought that goes into something that ends up seeming so beautiful and effortless, and instructive in just how huge a project this was. Number two is Deleted Footage including a scary snake festival, that possesses the same intensity and beauty of the finished product, but seems all the more mysterious for lacking narration and soundtrack music. It's a small package of extras for a fairly large documentary.
Depth of focus is paramount in making a good documentary, and Ganges, full of ravishing beauty, draws an interesting balance. The river is a huge subject, and with numerous interesting side-trips into wildlife and human endeavors surrounding this aqueous anaconda, it can seem overwhelming. When during the third chapter/ episode a more explicit specter of human effects on the river is brought to light, it becomes clear there's another documentary or two - to say the least - that might be made. But for overpowering visuals coupled with a far-reaching overview of a complex subject (not to mention a little ecological proselytizing) Ganges comes Recommended.