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A river’s tale: ‘Life on the Gila’ documents residents’ connections to stream

Jacob Rosdail isn’t new to making films.

In fact, he’s been making films for about a decade.

And he was challenged with his latest documentary, “Life on the Gila.”

“I had never done a nature film before,” the filmmaker says. “I teamed up with my colleague Mary Harner, who had given me the idea for the film.”

The documentary highlights life on New Mexico’s Gila River and its importance to those who rely on it. It will be shown on New Mexico PBS at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 5.

The film made its New Mexico premiere at the 2017 Santa Fe Independent Film Festival.

“The response was overwhelming,” Harner says of the festival. “People asked if we were going to show it on PBS. It’s finally going to be screened.”

The 25-minute film documents residents’ connections to the river and their visions for its future.

Jacob Rosdail and Mary Harner spent a month in New Mexico filming for the documentary, “Life on the Gila.” (Source Courtesy of Mary Harner)

With its headwaters in southwestern New Mexico, the upper Gila River, part of the Colorado River system, is one of the most dynamic rivers in the world. Within this semiarid landscape, availability of water is critical for supporting a diverse community of people, livelihoods and ecosystems.

The Gila River is facing changes, however, as planning progresses for large water-development projects. Filmed in 2016, “Life on the Gila” captures multiple perspectives during early stages of planning for water projects.

“Our aim is to present balanced, varied views of a regional story with universal themes related to how people reconcile use and protection of natural resources,” Harner says.

Harner, a graduate of the University of New Mexico biology program, became familiar with the Gila River.

It was she who persuaded Rosdail to make a documentary about the area.

“I went in wanting to take an issue and try to show both sides,” he says. “It became harder, because people on the other side of the diversion weren’t eager to talk with me. I also only had a one-month period to get all the work done.”

Harner wanted to look further into the Gila River because it’s one of a kind.

“We have, in most cases, altered our river system to meet the needs of people,” she says. “The Gila remains a very wild river, and it’s heavily utilized by people. And associated by diversity and complexity, there aren’t a lot of places left as an ecosystem. It stands out as having an incredible diversity of people. We are interested in the now. We filmed this in 2016 and wanted to show how people are grappling with the hard choices and what are their visions for the choices.”

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