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Trouble the Water: 'FLOW' Documents a Diminishing Resource

By Elisabeth Greenbaum Kasson

Scores of feminized male frogs...rivers of blood and sewage...pesticide-filled tap water...gender-switching fish...a clandestine group controlling one of the elements...It could be a modernized list of biblical plagues, but these are just a sampling of facts exposed in Irena Salina's disturbing documentary, FLOW, which opens theatrically September 12 through Oscilloscope Laboratories.

The film is an in-depth accounting of our most precious and diminishing resource. Water has become a coveted commodity, and a $400 billion global industry-the third largest behind electricity and oil. Corporate water privatization wreaks havoc on poor communities around the world, while loosening and/or nonexistent environmental restrictions have had a disastrous result on the entire food chain, putting everyone and everything at risk. Salina's broad approach to the international water crisis tends to overreach, yet her thoroughly researched, deeply personal appeal is a call to action that cannot be denied.

While FLOW's news is dire, one of the film's great strengths lies in Salina's ability to find hope and inspiration in the most unexpected places. IDA spoke with Salina via phone from her home in Brooklyn.

IDA: FLOW covers a lot of ground-pollution, commercialization, human rights, spirituality...Were you ever concerned about the breadth of the material and how to break it down?

Irena Salina: I know what you mean. I just felt like the subject was so important; there was even more footage that never made it in to the film. The first cut came in at two and a half hours, and I hired another editor after a year with the first, to break it down even more. We didn't want to be repetitive, and we restrained ourselves. It was important to me that if something was covered in India, bring it back to America because I really wanted people to feel like we were all one with the story of water. I didn't want people to look at it and think, "Oh, that's the situation in Africa; it's not happening here." We're all affected by this story and everything is connected. For example, we address the quality of our tap water and the problems caused by bacteria, pesticides and herbicides. These same issues are affecting people in Australia, India, France and more.


From Irena Salina's FLOW. Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories.

IDA: You cover water conflicts in India, Bolivia, Lethoso, South Africa and the US. What was it about these particular stories that stood above other water issues around the world?

IS: I had done a lot of research in the Middle East and China and could have shot anywhere, but these particular stories really stayed in my heart and were great examples of the effects of the crisis. I even worked with Shri Rajendra Singh for a little while after the film wrapped and did a film for his organization. He was named as one of the "green" persons who could change the world. Twenty years ago, he went into one of the poorest areas in rural India and wanted to build a school, but the elders told him, "We don't need education right now; we need water." It all starts there: no water, no community. The old men and women of the village told him about this ancient way of collecting rainwater that had disappeared under British rule. Within a year, when the monsoon came, they had gathered enough water for the cattle to drink and the crops to be watered, and people started making a living. Then they built the school. It started in one village and has spread to 3,600 villages. It was a perfect example of a small group of people being responsible for huge change.

IDA: There's a wonderful moment in the film where the head of the World Bank is being interviewed on the McNeil-Lehrer News Hour, and he says it's a shame that nobody knows what the World Bank is, or what they do.

IS: That was my dark humor in there; I had to put that in. They come off like they're here to save the world, but the opposite is true. We have to pay attention to the IMF because the way that the World Bank does business often works to impoverish communities. The World Bank comes in and forces a poor country to privatize the water in order to get the loan that it needs to build infrastructures. The loan is usually high interest, which creates debt, and after all that, the water privatization is often a disaster because poor people can't afford to pay. They fall further behind financially, while continuing to drink the unfiltered water that makes them sick, or kills them. In the meantime, the World Bank has the country by the financial balls because of the loan. Like we say in the film, there's also the issue of the World Bank knowing how to fund one project for billions of dollars, when what is often needed is thousands of small projects for small amounts of money, but there's no big return on those kinds of investments.

When you think about the business of water, you have to think about the business of life because water is life. So if I'm selling gold or diamonds, it's a whole different story. You don't eat gold; diamonds won't help your baby survive. We're talking about water. There is always room for business because it's how things are. But we live in a time when big business has to take responsibility for its actions and become more sustainable. I'm glad we're showing the IMF and World Bank practices because maybe they'll start changing the way they do things.

IDA: I thought the interviews with the CEOs of Vivendi and Suez were interesting for what they didn't say. Were you restricted while speaking with them?

IS: That was a long time coming. I was feeling a little courageous about doing those interviews because I expose their practices. It's not that I'm scared, but they are very big, powerful companies. The interview with Gerard Mestrallet (CEO of Suez) took many months; I had spoken to other filmmakers who said it would never happen. I appealed for an interview through someone, who knew someone, who knew someone. It finally happened right after he had a meeting, but first I had to spend 45 minutes with this PR woman. She wanted to see my questions, and she went over everything. I did not have the liberty to ask the things I wanted to. Before we started the interview, I spoke a bit about transparency to him, and he got very defensive. I said to myself, "There will be absolutely no interview if I ask about his responsibility to people who can't afford his water."
The Vivendi interview happened very early on. I was in Japan for a forum on water and the guy said, "Sure, I'll do the interview." But he wasn't as important as Mestrallet. His PR person was right behind me almost the entire time. At one point, he left the room and the guy relaxed and was very charming because at the end of the day, they're all players.

IDA: How did you ever get an investor/industrialist like T. Boone Pickens to brag about cornering the water market on camera?

IS: I didn't! As I was doing the film, I would research what was going on around the world and I saw this big interview with him, I think on CBS. I called my producer and said it would be great if we could get a segment. There was even more of him that I didn't use!

IDA: It took you five years to shoot the film. How did you manage such a long production and budget accordingly?

IS: I didn't shoot for the straight five years; I had to stop and start a lot. I went to South Africa and had to wait six months before going back. I'd travel and show film to people and get $5,000, and travel some more and show more film and get $10,000 and so on. We didn't have any big companies or television attached. Making the film over the five years, I think it came out to less than $100,000. It was just me and my camera by the time I got to Bolivia because I couldn't afford a crew.

I have to say, as I've been traveling with the film and talking to other documentary filmmakers, I'm always shocked at how much bigger their budgets were. There was so much more that I wanted to do and couldn't because we just didn't have the money. I wanted to have detailed maps that showed the relation between global warming, water and the food supply, because I wanted people to understand the connection. That's a real regret for me because I really wanted to get that across.

IDA: The film looks good. What were you shooting with?

IS: I used a Sony DV150, and I had a smaller, insignificant camera as a backup, just in case.

IDA: Have you begun any new projects?

IS: I might be doing something with Robin Romano, who did Stolen Childhoods. I'm also thinking of making a narrative Bollywood film with a strong social message. I've started developing the characters, and I really like the thought of using music to help tell the story.

Elisabeth Greenbaum Kasson is a writer and marketing/communications professional who spent many years in the trenches as a publicist for documentary and independent features films. She resides in Los Angeles with her family.