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YAKONA, a stunning documentary about the San Marcos River

Written by , published March 12, 2014

Amid the hundreds of documentaries, dramas, comedies, and experimental films available for screening during South by Southwest’s film offerings this year, I chanced into a screening of YAKONA, an important and unusual film addressing one of Texas’ most imperiled resources: Water. 

Filmed over a three-year period at Aquarena Center in San Marcos, Texas moviemakers Anlo Sepulveda and Paul Collins tell the centuries-old story of the river from the river’s perspective—an inventive construct that didn’t always work for me, but made for fascinating viewing.

The area surrounding Aquarena Center’s Spring Lake, created by more than 200 springs, is widely recognized as one of the longest continually inhabited areas in North America, and YAKONA—roughly translated as “rising water” in the native Coahuiltecan language—takes viewers from the river’s source to the sea while touching on elements of Texas history as varied as skirmishes between native tribes and the Texas Rangers and the erstwhile swimming pigs of the long-closed Aquarena Springs amusement park.

The footage—which includes the dramatic removal of Aquarena Springs’ underwater theater, home to both the swimming pigs and the park’s famous “mermaids”—is captivating and unlike anything I have seen before on the silver screen. In person, through goggles or from a kayak, I’ve witnessed snapping turtles and egrets on the hunt, alligator gar moving languidly through murky water, dragonflies alighting on delicate grasses, nutria swimming determinedly toward shore, and even the elegant bubbling of sand at the springs’ source. But never have I seen these things photographed so beautifully and dramatically, and never have I viewed them against an emotive score built around piano, guitar, and cello. It was captivating and exquisite, and gave me a new appreciation for the beauty of Texas’ natural places.

At a Q& A after the screening, the filmmakers said that this spring and summer, Texas audiences would have the opportunity to view YAKONA accompanied by a live orchestra, and that will be something to experience indeed.  

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