St. Paul, Minn. — Robb Moss's film The Same River Twice opens with a naked man climbing on a boulder by the water's edge. He balances himself, then plunges into the water.
The shot is actually from another movie called Riverdogs. Moss shot the film on what he knew was likely to be his last river trip as a guide. He wanted to capture the free and easy communal life he'd enjoyed with his friends. He filmed the rafters as they paddled the huge green rapids. Off the water, they spent much of the time naked, lazing in the sun, eating, and talking.
After the trip, Moss traveled the world, made more films and started a family. Then, on another river trip in the early '90s, he began considering what had happened to the "riverdogs."
"And I thought to myself that maybe there would be a way to make a film about that, about the enactment of our grownup lives, by using this old footage and intercutting it with people's lives today," Moss says.
So he went back to five of his friends, and began filming.
There is something quite wonderful and heartbreaking about looking at your own naked body when you are in your 20s, and you are in your own late 40s or early 50s. There is something quite incredible about that. And that shows on people's faces. They are agog sometimes.
There is Danny. She's a former genetics counselor who now runs an aerobics business. Barry runs a small town psychiatric hospital, and is also the mayor of Placerville, California. Cathy is the mayor of Ashland, Oregon. She's divorced from Jeff, a writer and talk show host.
And then there is Jim, who -- 20 years on -- is still a river guide.
"One of the things that people might think is that I didn't choose the other 12 because they all became investment bankers and they didn't fulfill some thesis in my mind," Moss says. "But all of the 17 lives look something like the five people we see on the screen."
And we see a lot: Barry running unsuccessfully for re-election, facing health problems, and caring for an elderly mother. Cathy's running a city while raising two teenagers, and preparing to remarry. She's still dealing with Jeff's infidelity. Jeff, driving boxes of books from signing to signing, talks of how he let himself drift away from Cathy. And Jim keeps talking about building a new home on his land, but never quite gets down to it.
They all talk about who they are now, and who they were then. It's compelling to watch, but sometimes not flattering.
"Often things that are good for filmmakers are bad for film subjects," Moss admits.
Some of the most startling scenes came when Rob Moss turned his camera on his subjects as they watched the old film of themselves. He says he didn't know what he'd get.
He found out when he showed Cathy an interchange she'd had with Barry in 1978. Sitting by the river, Barry snubs her, and she silently waves him away. Present-day Cathy swears out loud, then laughs, saying she's more self-confident now. A week later, present-day Barry cringes with embarrassment.
"They are both responding to something that happened 20, 25 years ago -- in the present," Moss says. "One is able to vent her anger and the other is able to apologize cinematically, and stitch together the then and the now. And when I shot those two scenes -- this was very early on in the shooting -- I thought to myself, 'Well, maybe I can make a movie out of this.'"
The film's title harkens back to the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus' claim that you can never step in the same river twice. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last year.
Moss admits he has had to spend time since, talking with his friends about the reality of having a movie of their lives in circulation. It might seem surprising that they are not so concerned about moviegoers seeing them naked.
"There is something quite wonderful and heartbreaking about looking at your own naked body when you are in your 20s, and you are in your own late 40s or early 50s," Moss says. "There is something quite incredible about that. And that shows on people's faces. They are agog sometimes."
Moss says his subjects were more concerned about revealing their emotional vulnerability. They have talked, however, about making another film in another 20 years. Robb Moss even has a title.
"The Naked and the Dead," he says. "Barry has pointed out to me when I have mentioned it at screenings, that is a joke which will only be funny for so long. But if we are still around, and if they will sit still for it, I would love to make a third movie."