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Flow: For Love of Water

Director: Irene Salina
Cast: William E. Marks, Vandana Shiva, Maude Barlow, Erik D. Olson, Ashwin Desai, Peter Gleick, Holly Wren Spaulding

(Oscilloscope Pictures; US theatrical: 12 Sep 2008 (Limited release); 2007)

Water Is Not a Property

“If you think about our planet,” says William E. Marks, “It is one huge living body, because of the water that flows through it and across the land masses. You can have veins of water and arteries of water flowing. This flows into our ocean, which is the heart of our earth and it exhales, it evaporates water and puts water back into the hydrologic cycle.” Marks’ metaphor follows from the work he’s done for his book, The Holy Order of Water: Healing the Earth’s Waters and Ourselves, but it also serves a particular function in Flow: For Love of Water. As he compares humans and their planet, Marks also establishes a theme for Irena Salina’s documentary, namely, the ways that bodies shape and are shaped by economies.


Marks’ point is both allusive and mundane. “We too are like the surface of our planet, 70% water and 30% solid,” he extends, “We too have a heart, we have 60,000 miles of veins and arteries.” Flow is similarly split between modes. Most importantly, the film critiques the commodification of water, which has resulted in increased global inequities. (This is a multivalent, ongoing argument made regularly in AlterNet’s excellent “Water” section.) Less successfully, it offers examples of exploitation and impassioned witnesses, so that the overarching image—the body in crisis—is put to variously effective uses.


After listing some alarming but not very specific numbers (in the United States, an estimated “500,000 to seven million people get sick per year from drinking their tap water,” “Tasmanian cancer rates up 200%”), the film digs into some particulars concerning pollutants. Environmental activist and physicist Vandana Shiva observes, many chemicals now polluting water supplies were “designed for warfare,” while attorney Erik D. Olson takes aim at atrazine, a weed killer now the “number one contaminant” in ground, surface, and drinking water. The more significant point is that “the government,” far from protecting citizens from such a toxin, enables corporations to profit from it. While the film notes that atrazine has been shown to “demasculinize frogs” (a point underscored by a cartoon frog putting on lipstick), a series of ominously dissolving intertitles cites its connection to cancers (ovarian, prostate). The zinger is that while atrazine is banned in the European Union, 80 million pounds of it are sold in the U.S. annually, thanks in large part to the Atlanta-based manufacturer Syngenta).


The frog imagery associated with atrazine provides a rudimentary transition to a segment on Bolivia’s Cochabamba water crisis. An episode of corporate abuse and successful protest that came to international media attention in 2000, Cochabamba was also explored in a Frontline episode and The Corporation, and is mentioned in Our Brand is Crisis. The crisis serves here to introduce Maude Barlow (co-author of Blue Gold), who articulates again the film’s primary notion, that the body-like earth is under assault by short-sighted profiteers. Vivendi, Thames Water, and Suez, she says, are the three primary culprits, companies that “deliver water on a for-profit basis all around the world.” To illustrate, the film includes brief clips of the CEOs in designer suits, extolling their good intentions to provide potable water to those in need. As they speak, however, the example of Cochabamba looms large, the effort by the Bolivian government, under pressure by the World Bank to which it was impossibly indebted, to privatize the water supply. (In January 2007, the film notes, following images of ardent demonstrators and skipping over the lengthy legal battles, this effort was turned back and the water system was turned back to “the people.”)


Flow‘s several other examples, less well known, are presented in a somewhat scattershot structure. From South Africa to India to United States, the film charts corporate attempts to charge poor communities for water. When Vivendi’s Charles- Louis de-Maud’huy says he only wants to provide disease-free water to “everyone,” the film shows that he really means “customers.” Basil Bold, Managing Director of Invensys Metering Systems, says more clearly, that because consumers might assume water is not a possession to be bought and sold, “You have to change the thinking the culture, of people, to understand that they should pay. You shouldn’t have to force them to pay, they should want to pay.” 


The preposterous logic-and-illogic of such a statement is surely daunting. And the example of Nestlé shows how legal language and court systems sustain it. the owner of some 70 brands of water (including Poland Spring, Deer Park, Perrier, and Ice Mountain), Nestlé began extracting water from land it owned in Michigan, “pumping upwards of 450 gallons per minute,” causing the lowering of water levels and igniting increasingly organized resistance from local citizens. Even when a judge ruled against Nestlé, the company has continued pumping while appealing.


The shots of snowy mountainsides and receding streams lead Flow to return to the body metaphor, this time via a series of unpersuasive, canned-looking beautiful-planet images. The narrator now is Siddharaj Dhadda, a “Gandhian leader,” who sets up distinctions among bodies that are at once cultural, political, and raced. “The white man doesn’t understand our ways,” he says, as you see images of streams, lakes, and other glorious “nature,” contrasted with ugly pumps. “He is a stranger who takes whatever he needs. The earth is not his brother, but his enemy. When he has conquered it, he moves on.” Here the film does not take the opportunity to explore the racism that structures the politics and economics of water. While Flow‘s subject matter is vital, its framing remains vague.

Rating:

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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