The air crackled with anticipation before the unveiling of the first official documentary to cover the WaterFire phenomenon.
The premiere of “WaterFire: The Art and Soul of a City,” took place at the Vets Auditorium on Saturday, December 1st, to a full house that included Mayor Tavares, Buddy Cianci, MCs from the Rhode Show, numerous local luminaries and countless volunteers, on whose shoulders so much of WaterFire rests.
Musical warm up acts set the tone for the evening, with performances by WaterFire regular, fire dancer/musician Spogga and others. The screening was enthusiastically received, concluding with a prolonged standing ovation.
The closing QA session was followed by a significant announcement for WaterFire: the organization, which currently scatters its boats, wood, staff and equipment across several spaces around Providence, will be renovating a new, extensive headquarters. The space will be shared with other arts and entertainment organizations – indeed, as the announcement was being made, supportive Roller Derby Players and members of ERB, filed on stage in silent, albeit visually striking, support. Mayor Tavares then announced that the city will support the project with a grant of $500,000.
Entering the premiere, I was concerned that we’d be watching one long infomercial. While the film certainly has some self-promotional elements, it very aptly avoids that trap, celebrating the event without waning self-congratulatory. The documentary ties in elements of Providence history, from the birth of the “Creative Capital” and “Renaissance City” all the way back to Roger Williams.
There’s a fun exploration of the earliest incarnation of WaterFire and how close it came to being a one-time-only event. In the middle of winter.
Fortunately for all who have enjoyed a fire-lit, musically accompanied stroll along the Providence River, the event took deeper root in the city. Estimates of the number of people who’ve been to WaterFire over the years exceeds the entire population of Rhode Island, several times over (estimated 15 million).
The documentary explores the impact of these visitors on the state, on other artistic ventures, and on attendees, sprinkling in fun facts. For example, one poll shows that support of WaterFire may be the only issue RI politicians all agree on. The film also follows the WaterFire team as it carries the torch to other cities, especially a recent excursion in Rome, Italy.
The cast of characters is diverse and lively, and director Joe Rocco of RocJo Productions keeps his story moving at a comfortable pace, with moments that are touching, surprising and funny. While artistic mastermind and creator of WaterFire Barnaby Evans and irrepressible former Mayor Cianci deliver most of the best lines, numerous other interviews contribute wit and wisdom, and the narration by Robert John Hughes (written by Mary Steele) ties the piece together well.
Capturing this night-time imagery is no small cinematographic challenge, and capturing the grandeur of an outdoor event is another real challenge in video – both are handled skillfully by director of photography (and editor) Jim Karpeichik, with assists from several videographers including Louis Leta, Thomas Payne and Scott Santos.
At 59 minutes, this video nimbly passes the “itchy bottom” test. And for hard-core WaterFire fans, there are 50 minutes of bonus features, extra interviews and a loop of some of the best footage, which you can play anytime you’re looking to create a little of that “WaterFire feeling.”