Irena Salina, director of the now newly completed film FLOW: For Love of Water, had wanted to get to the far eastern coast of South Africa to visit a Zulu village where people were sick, and in many cases, dying, due to lack of access to clean drinking water. To do so, wed drive all day through uncertain terrain, navigate language barriers, forebear the oppressive heat, and eventually find a hotel well after midnight. Tomorrow, wed be in an urban community where poor people were having their taps disconnected for lack of funds to pay the water company. What was I doing? Why was I racing around southern Africa with a multinational team of independent filmmakers?
Five years ago I was justifiably mad about Nestles water bottling scheme in Mecosta County, had already faced intimidation by the FBI for my stance on the issue, and I was wondering why it wasnt more clear to greater numbers of people that it simply is not a good idea to let our water go like that. I started traveling, hoping to learn some things from activists in other places where water battles were ongoing.
It was the early days of the making of a film documenting precisely what I was researching independently. French born director Irena Salina quickly brought me onto the project to assist in shaping a story about the global water crisis.
Clearly, making a film about the problem of water scarcity and global water conflicts including those in our own backyard -- was going to be a great tool for reaching all of those people who do not have the opportunity to travel and study the issue as we were.
The romance of making a film in another country, and the thrill of getting close enough to situations and people to really hear their stories was not wearing off, but I was running on pure adrenalin. Who has time for food? Sleep? Or exercise, when youve got two weeks to shoot and a shoestring to do it with?
I was exhaustedwe all werebut I couldnt have been having more fun. And the African trip was just the beginning of what would take us five years to complete.
A FILMMAKERS DREAM
The thrill of being at the Sundance Film Festival to premier the final cut of FLOW last month was the kind of opportunity any independent filmmaker will dream of.
Said another way, its a wonderful thing to collaborate with passionate people in the creation of a document that is meant to move our culture toward a more thoughtful, intellectually critical, and emotionally invested perspective on watersomething we so easily take for granted. Naturally, being selected from among 3,624 feature submissions to be one of 16 U.S. feature documentaries in competition is pretty fantastic indeed.
And yet I was standing in a massive line outside the sold-out premier screening in Park City, Utah, the waitlist number 64 in my hand and blind faith that Id actually get in to see a film I helped to makea film that Im actually in!
This is, of course, a quintessentially Sundance experience. Everyone waits, often outside on a cold piece of cement beside an oversold theater. Sometimes you get one of the coveted tickets that are released at the last moment, and sometimes you get in thanks to a producer or an agent, and sometimes you end up in line for two hours, bundled for the bitter cold, having a lovely chat with the other film lovers standing around with you.
My brother Ethan and I did finally get in, thanks to the executive producer who was running around madly, procuring tickets and trying to get all of his people into our big night, come what may.
And then when the lights came up again in the theater, I was sitting among 20 or so other members of the crew. You can bet we were all smiling. Ear-to-ear and full of pride. The film looks stunning (many of us were seeing it for the first time). It is a vessel woven of so many clear and compelling storiesfrom Northern Michigan to South Africa to India, Bolivia, and moreand it carries you with it on a tremendous tour of water hot spots all over the planet. Even to Michigan.
At a screening the following day, the first comment during the Q & A came from a man who introduced himself as a former CEO of one of the companies who receives considerable criticism in the film; one of the Big Three corporations who are blamed for countless millions of poor people going without access to water because they cant afford the rising rates. He went on to say that all of it was true, that indeed these corporate guys only care about the company share price and steak dinners with hedge fund managers in New York. The audience was rapt.
Shortly thereafter, a woman who had waited a while to raise her hand said that she works in branding and was currently on a project to sell privatization to the people of Scotland, the only country in Europe who has not privatized their water. It is coming up for a vote in 2010 and she is supposed to sell the idea to the people. She said, Now Ill be working for the other side. The film made it that clear: we cannot afford to let profit motives control something as fundamental as water.
Another woman said, Obviously Ill be boycotting some of these products but what do you drink when you are traveling? Director Salina is committed to drinking public tap water, and said so. It is only one small step, but maybe the tides are really finally turning. Increasing numbers will likely join us.
As a person who cares deeply for this message, and as one of the worker bees on this film, I couldnt be more convinced of the power of such a documentary. As I walked around Park City for a week, watching movies, celebrating the premier of FLOW, and getting to know other people who do this for a living, I was pleased to start hearing about how our own contribution to the conversation was being taken up.
At the final screening, 450 people gave the film a standing ovationa truly rare occurrence at Sundance. Blogging for Wired magazine, Jason Silvermans Best of Sundance included an honorable mention for FLOW. Another column pointed out that this years festival seems to be especially responsive to green films with many new releases perhaps riding the wave carved by Al Gores 2006 Sundance hit, An Inconvenient Truth.
FLOW is well argued and beautifully crafted, and I look forward to when the people who really care most for the Great Lakes, can see them shine in this new documentary by Irena Salina.
Holly Wren Spaulding is a writer from Leelanau County.