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Actor Picks Up Camera for L.A. River Documentary

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Photo: Peter Bennett Citizen of the Planet

Change is coming to the Los Angeles River. After the momentous unanimous decision to proceed with a $1.3 billion restoration plan for the 51-mile waterway, it is inevitable. It might take decades to finish the work, but there is no question that Angelenos are at the cusp of a pivotal moment in history.

Actor and founder of non-profit Green Wish, Raphael Sbarge has written, produced, and directed "A Concrete River: Reviving the Waters of Los Angeles" to capture this moment in time and to help build even more awareness of the waterway's complicated history. Supported by the California Institute of Contemporary Arts, the documentary will premiere on Wednesday, July 29 at Laemmle NoHo 7, at a fundraiser.

"Ask anyone [about the L.A. River] and you'll get a blank stare," said Sbarge. "But ask them if they know the scene in 'Grease' where they race the cars, or remember Arnold Schwarzenegger from 'Terminator' riding down it in a motorcycle, and the light bulb goes off. That's what people know of our 51-mile long river. Surprisingly, many, many long-term residents have never been down to the restored parts of the river, and don't even know it's available. In a city devoid of green space, this is a huge asset."

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Sbarge sees his documentary as a "call to action" for residents to step up and help shape the direction of Los Angeles's future via the river. "The funds raised will go directly to support the larger vision of the river's expansion currently under discussion," said Sbarge, who is working with Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR) on the project.

Sbarge first began to delve into the history of the Los Angeles River on his own. He saw an original footage of the massive 1938 floods that took out 6,000 homes and flooded a third of Los Angeles, and even cancelled the Oscars.

This initial jolt piqued his interest, and he was plagued with questions such as: What was this long, concrete L.A. eyesore? Who built it? And why aren't we collecting all the water that runs down the concrete river? His questions eventually led them to FoLAR's door, who had been answering these questions for decades at that point.

Photo: Peter Bennett Citizen of the Planet
Photo: Peter Bennett Citizen of the Planet

Once Sbarge had a handle on the river's current state of flux, he decided it was the perfect time to work on this documentary. "I had heard that Congress was about to have a hearing about the biggest restoration of the river since it was built in 1938. This, plus our drought, plus the United States Army Corps of Engineering's position on rebuilding this aqueduct that eradicated our indigenous wildlife, and the hope of actually reviving this massive concrete waterway was the moment when I knew this story was begging to be told."

Though the drought is worrisome to many in the state, Sbarge sees it also as a catalyst for conversation. "The drought has been a gift to the L.A. River. What we once knew as, 'oh, that weird concrete channel that runs by the freeway' is now becoming that 'that thing that fills up with rainwater -- what are we doing about it?'" said Sbarge. "That's the conversation. Water is the conversation, at the moment, and it is providing us an impetus for change, potentially a 'once in a generation' opportunity is upon us, to really make an appreciable difference in our city."

The documentary makes use of FoLAR's extensive archive, including archival footage and photos. "It's a flimmaker's candy store," described Sbarge.

The short film gives a short history of the river, going back to the Tongva tribes that first lived by its banks, to the Spanish Portola expedition, through the huge explosion and expansion in Hollywood and Los Angeles in the early 19th Century. "We then see original footage of the flood, from 1938, and discuss where the river is headed and what the future will bring," said Sbarge. To add a human element to this story (which is often told on KCET) Sbarge and his team were able to speak to people and organizations who helped shape the history of the river, and even located someone who actually experienced the 1938 floods.

"Los Angeles is about to fight for her own survival -- for water," said Sbarge. "Los Angeles is poised to make a massive $1.3 billion investment in the Los Angeles River. That's $1.3 billion of hope, and survival, and sustainable living for the largest city west of the Mississippi. That's worth picking up a camera for."

The event is 6:30 p.m. followed by 7:00 p.m. screening at Laemmle Theatre Noho 7, 5240 Lankershim Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 91601. Seating strictly limited. RSVP required and suggested tax-deductible donations of $40.00 per ticket. Details here.