It is a sad but sorry truth that for most Londoners the only acknowledgement they have of the river that runs through the capital is shrieking for The Blues from its banks on Boat Race day, or arguing with a cabbie over which is the quickest bridge to take. Not so Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen, whose film Portrait of a River is a poetic vision of London though the eyes of the people who have lived and worked on the Thames.

The Danish born filmmaker – who has called London his home for twenty years – tells us ‘,when I was studying in Chelsea I crossed the river every day on my bike but never paid it much attention. Making this film was like getting to know someone and then having a relationship…’
Portrait of a River was commissioned by the Museum of London and Film and Video Umbrella (FVU) for the Estuary exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands. The film weaves together fragments and traces to create a magnificent and powerful tapestry of the waterway.

The film is shown as a series of what Nikolaj describes as ‘music video length vignettes’ in random order, to mimic the twists and turns of its unpredictable subject. ‘Everyone’s experience of the film will be different,’ explains Nikolaj ‘,just as everyone has an individual way of interpreting the river…’ Prolific in the film are the watermen and lightermen and their families; whose history and traditions predate London’s tubes and buses, and their intimate knowledge of the water and its foibles was essential to bygone trade and transport.

‘Some of the characters we were led to by others, some we bumped into by chance,’ Nikolaj recounts. One instrumental subject was senior waterman Capt John Potter ‘, he was really into telling his story and introduced us to many of the younger generation. The people who live on the river in general are very proud and want to spread the word. Capt Potter said to us ‘it is the river that runs through our veins…’’

Having been released in three stages since March 2013, the film has been much lauded. The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, described Portrait of a River as ‘a special film’ and added ‘, As the historic lifeblood of our city, this great river continues to inspire a multitude of stories…’ Nikolaj tells us he has some favourite characters within his work. ‘Tom Cook is a young skipper but he has a soul from the last century,’ he laughs ‘, he speaks as though he has been working the trade for years…’ One of Tom’s insights was that despite the fact that the river is constantly evolving and progressing, people have always been romanticising about its past ‘100 years ago people would speak nostalgically about 200 years ago,’ quips Nikolaj.

He tells us that another high point was filming a community boating project in Deptford who help the disabled to enjoy the river. Having studied the ebb and flow and filmed his subject from the air, the tidemark and below, we were curious to hear what the experience had meant to Nikolaj. ‘I learned a lot,’ he says with earnest ‘,about the river’s history but also its future. The old traditions of the watermen, the old ports that are dying out… but also the exciting things the future holds like the new, big container terminal, the windfarm and of course the hugely successful Canary Wharf and Dockands area….’

Does he have a favourite part of the river itself? ‘Yes absolutely. When it opens up at Southend and becomes the sea, it’s something special - an incredibly powerful image.’ And finally does he have any sage words for those who may have previously overlooked the Thames? ‘When tourists come to London and take a 45 minute river cruise, they learn a few facts and they think they know the river’ says Nikolaj. ‘But what I know about it is a different insight, I guess.’

The Museum of London Docklands is a branch of the main Museum of London, located at West India Quay in east London.

For more information on the filmmaker go to
Photography: Jonas Mortensen