Text by Andrew Burmon
Flow, the new documentary by French filmmaker Irena Salina (watch the trailer), is not the first attempt to alert the international community to the looming worldwide water shortage … and it will not be the last. Over the last few years the debate over the future of water has begun to edge its way toward center stage, but failed to step into a spotlight already crowded by war, elections, and the scandal du jour. By surveying the many facets of the water debate, Flow effectively advocates for the importance of addressing water issues now, before it is too late.
Much of Flow’s appeal comes from Salina’s thoughtful reframing of old issues. In one of the film’s more interesting segments, she documents the conflict between community activists in Stanwood, Michigan, and Nestle’s Stanwood bottled water plant, which sucked so aggressively that it created a localized drought. By approaching the issue of bottled water from an ecological perspective rather than via the well-trod path (it is just tap water and you can’t call it "Mountain Ice" if its from Michigan!) Salina confronts a harsher reality about water bottling outfits—that they are just another example of our natural resources being sold to a not-so-high bidder. The idea of water as a valuable resource, rather than a saleable commodity, is central to Flow’s message.
Salina illustrates her political points with vignettes from all over the world, but Flow focuses with the greatest intensity on Gopalpura, India, where a town has worked together to replenish the aquifer, and La Paz, Bolivia, where a leaking slaughterhouse has turned a river red. The Gopalpura story line makes a strong argument for the importance of keeping water in the hands of communities, rather than governments or corporations by lionizing local knowledge and local water management. Using traditional methods, a group of villagers digs a series of ditches that allows rain to seep more effectively into the ground. A fallow valley turns green. In stark contrast, La Paz’s bloody river is an assault on the eyes. Washed laundry turns red and children splash each other with blood. This is Salina’s prophecy of the coming crisis, a vision grotesque enough to tempt the audience to look away.
In the past, gloomy documentaries have attempted to get around the revulsion factor with celebrity cameos and special effects. Flow is too resolute for such panderings. Rather than move toward diverting the audience, Salina moves toward advocacy. This is not, in and of itself, a negative, but the film’s increasingly strident tone occasionally tips over the line. In one scene, Salina shows an innocent looking woman showering while a voice-over discusses the dangers of physical contact with the herbicides in American water. The ominous aura of the steamy shower brings to mind Psycho.
With the water crisis looming (like Norman Bates behind a shower curtain), it is certain that water management will become the center of many future debates. What remains to be seen is whether books and films by well-meaning and intelligent activists like Salina will stir people and governments to take just action or drown in their own earnestness.
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