BETWEEN TWO RIVERS – SLIFF Review
Review by Dana Jung
When I was a kid visiting relatives in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, there invariably came an evening when no family activities were planned, and talk would turn to going “across the river.” My parents and aunts and uncles spoke in hushed but excited tones about this place, and in my young mind I imagined an exotic, vaguely sinful carnival of some kind. The place of my childhood was Cairo, Illinois, and is the subject of a new documentary by Jacob Cartwright and Nick Jordan.
Interweaving the often turbulent history of the small town with the 2011 flooding crisis, the film is a fairly thoughtful indictment of the destructive forces of greed and racism. Positioned at the confluence of the two largest rivers in the U.S. (the Ohio and the Mississippi), Cairo was at one time a booming small town with a population of nearly 20,000 people. Today, there are less than 3,000 citizens braving poverty, limited resources, and mother nature to still live in Cairo. Using interviews with the current residents, historical footage, and voice over narration (mostly quoting news reports), TWO RIVERS paints a depressing picture of “the town history forgot.” From its origins (it was supposedly named by early settlers due to its similarity to the Nile delta in Egypt) to its historical significance (it was a staging area for Grant’s army during the Civil War) to its dark times (race riots burned many homes and businesses during the late 1960s, and hate crimes are littered throughout the decades), Cairo has stood, as one interviewee put it, as a prime example of our inability as a society to peacefully live together.
As shown throughout the film, the years have not been kind to Cairo. Lingering shots of the squalor that has overtaken large parts of the town, such as the abandoned hospital overgrown with weeds and vegetation, are the main images that remain after watching TWO RIVERS. After the social forces of civil rights and integration in the 1960s, much of the wealthier white population left Cairo, taking their businesses and financial support for the town with them, basically leaving Cairo to die. It has been a slow death, with not only economic hardship to deal with, but the powerful and dispassionate force of the rivers as well. When the waters reached critical levels last year, a decision was necessary. Destroy some levees and flood hundreds of acres of farmland, or do nothing and let the town of Cairo flood. For the Army Corps of Engineers, news commentators, and other observers, this was a decision to be analyzed after considering all the relevant data. For the people who still called Cairo home, however, the decision was simple: after surviving all the floods, violence, and social change through all the years, Cairo deserved a better fate. Although the casinos and nightclubs that my relatives visited are long gone, there is still something important that remains in Cairo—the loyalty, dedication, and even love of a place that resides as much in the hearts and minds of its residents as it does in the basin of two rivers.
TALES OF THE NIGHT screens as part of the 21st Annual Whitaker Saint Louis International Film Festival tonight, November 9th at the Wildey Theater at 7:00pm