Brennan: Reflection (2021) | courtesy of MPRM
Emmett Brennan: Reflection: A Walk with Water (2021) | courtesy of MPRM

Director Emmett Brennan on the Meditative Urgency in His Environmental Film, ‘Reflection: A Walk with Water’

Director Emmett Brennan talks with PopMatters about telling an environmental story that can benefit our lives with Reflection: A Walk with Water.

Reflection: A Walk with Water
Emmett Brennan
15 June 2021 (Tribeca)

Reflection: A Walk with Water (2021), sees Californian-based filmmaker Emmett Brown embark on a 200-mile walk along the ageing Los Angeles aqueduct. His journey reveals that Los Angeles and other parts of California, are beacons of potential change for how we use Earth’s most precious resource: water. Previously he produced the environmental documentary, Inhabit: A Permaculture Perspective (Boutsikaris, 2015), and with his directorial debut feature, he offers a vision of hope in the midst of humanity’s existential crisis. Reflection proposes the need to rethink the way we choose to inhabit the planet and to revitalise our relationship with water.

In conversation with PopMatters, Brennan discusses nurturing a meditative space for the audience to connect with the films’ message, how rebuilding relationships restores hope, and our potential to rethink and rebuild for the survival of future generations.

To begin, what was the initial spark that compelled you to make this film?

The spark initially came from me growing up in a world that’s making less sense or recognising that there’s a deep existential anxiety that exists inside of me. There’s a lot of grief, fear, and care around the changes that are happening, specifically with the environment, but also socially and politically. As a filmmaker, I was drawn to telling a story that could be of benefit to this moment. 

In the works I’ve done, the people I’ve met, and the stories I’ve shared, so much pointed to water. A quick anecdote is that I started working on a short-form series. I was going to find cool people and projects that were rearming to take humanity towards human systems that support the conditions for life. As I started to do the research for this and meet people, all of the work was pointing toward water. There was a moment when I thought, ‘There’s a feature-length film here to tell.’

The opening image of Reflection has a strong aesthetic presence, hypnotic images of the serene beauty of our planet that draws our gaze. The presentation of factual information in contemporary documentaries seeks to draw from narrative story-building techniques. They’re not talking at the audience, but engaging them through a complimentary mix of information, aesthetics, and story-building.

It has been a challenge and the process has been a huge learning experience. It’s largely why I ended up inserting myself as a loose character throughout the film, to add a bit more of that story-building.

I’d never edited a feature-length film before. I’d only done these short vignettes or trailer-style things where you’re not having to build the character, or you do, but in a different way. I had to learn how you create space around characters in scenes, to let people drop in and rest their eyes on small details. 

In the environmental sphere of films, it has felt challenging to make this poppy, edgy, enticing and exciting character-developed film about water. I’ve tried to find a middle way, almost like the vision that’s being created–where we can go as humanity is the character. It’s what’s pulling people forward. All of the characters in the film provide different views into that character, and views of what’s possible.

I imagine you’d have been attentive to using the music as a subtle voice, to manipulate the emotions and thoughts of the audience in a non-aggressive way.

I tried to create a vibe and a meditative space that people can sink into and allow themselves to be open to the message of the film. The music is hugely instrumental in bringing people to that place, slowing them down, but keeping them attentive. It’s the line that this film is walking. It’s definitely slowing people down, it’s definitely opening up into meditative states, but it’s also trying to have urgency. Not too much urgency that people’s nervous systems freak out, because there’s so much of that already. We have enough films where we’re fucked. So urgency is a factor but it’s also safe enough for viewers to receive the vision of hope.

Someone who has seen the film a number of times, who was at the premiere, was remarking you could just close your eyes and still have a nourishingly beautiful experience, because the music is telling you so much.

We’re either happy or sad, optimistic or pessimistic. Reflection with its message of hope amidst an existential crisis, encourages us to find that middle ground instead of living by polarising extremes.

We don’t know what’s going to happen. We can be hopeful or despairing, but either one is a shot in the dark that we’re choosing to put a stake in. The reality of the moment is that most of humanity is supremely disconnected from the places that we occupy. If we can remember that we have a relationship to nature and how we’re occupying this planet matters for the continuation of life, then we can start there. 

Hope is a natural outcome of building relationships again. When we’re in relationships and we’re redesigning human life in ways that are conducive to life, then life flourishes. It’s a possibility we can move towards as a species by engaging with this present moment, finding what’s available, and letting that lead the way. 

Why have we become disconnected with the world if it’s life giving? Can the Freudian “death drive” explain it?

We’ve been on a trajectory of disconnection for so long. One of the indigenous folks in a scene I cut from the film, spoke about the ways we’ve built comfort into our lives for generations. It’s to the point that we have walls and air conditioning–we don’t interact with the temperature of a place. 

It’s confusing because we’re of this earth, we’re composed of the material of this planet, as are all of the buildings and the plastics. It all comes from the earth, so fundamentally we’re not disconnected. Our thoughts and our minds just run away. We build these empires and we all have these collective agreements that we start operating with and no one questions it.

To pick up on your earlier point about being in the moment, while it can be positive, governments and individuals, such as Trump, warn us of being blinded by the moment. We need to have foresight because the future is a product of the present. 

I don’t think Donald Trump or these people are living in the moment. 

This is simple and funny, but very meaningful. I live in a place where our shower is outdoors, and the water goes back into the soil. The water is pulled from a well in that land, I shower, and the water goes straight back into the land. There’s this circle, and I’ve been showering there for long enough that when I shower in a bathtub, or just a normal situation now, I feel how that circle has been flattened. I have no idea where the water is coming from. It’s moving through these pipes, it’s running over my body, then it’s in the pipes again and eventually out to the ocean. 

Understanding that impact is tangible when you’re present in the relationships, or present to the fact that the grasslands and the whole ecologies of this place are gone, they’re paved over. 

We need to have an awareness of how we’re setting things up for the next seven generations, and the kind of world we’re leaving behind.

What we’re talking about is the difference between being in the moment versus being present in the moment.

In the context of this film, it’s asking us to look at our environmental impact and how we exist in this super-complex, unbelievable web of relationships. Everything that we do has some sort of response. Whatever we do as humans, whatever systems we design, however we design our cities and agriculture, it’s impacting life in some way. 

Water is an amazing metaphor for this because it’s in all life. It moves inside, through, and between all things. We’re all forms that water is taking as it’s moving. Understanding our relationship to water is a direct way to understand our relationship to the rest of life, because when we pipe water, or remove water from the landscape, the cascade effect of that is immense. It doesn’t stop, it continues, so how can we pay attention to how the ripples of our actions move? 

The existential crisis is worrying, but when we approach or arrive at a breaking point, there’s an opportunity to rethink and rebuild in a different, more positive way. It’s an opportunity for transformation, which is something we need to be thinking about in regards to the Coronavirus pandemic. We should not seek a return to the old normal that was broken. Instead, we should build a new normal.  

We’re so fixed as a species on what we know that it’s hard to let go and move on. We’re like a massive ship whose rudder moves, but it takes a long time for the ship to turn. When something large-scale forces us to let go, like Covid, which is a disruption, it changes our agreements. There’s suddenly space to bring in something new.

When a fire ripped through Santa Rosa [California] near where I live, and tonnes of houses were demolished, there was an opportunity to rethink how we design and build in these ecologies, what materials we use, and how we’re caring for these places. The speed at which the developers came in and rebuilt was too fast to see any change. The new neighbourhood was built exactly the same as the one that burned. No change had occurred and surely the fires are going to happen again. 

It’s not a guarantee that when something occurs that we’ll rebuild differently, but there’s an opportunity to. If there’s enough care and attention, we can do it.

Picking up on your point about the speed at which the developers rushed in, capitalism is not a sustainable model for the future. There’s unlikely a sustainable model because of cultural, social, and political evolution, but the capitalist approach is one with a history of cruelty and indifference. That needs to be transformed.

I’ve no idea what it looks like to design a system for this many people on the planet. I don’t have any pretence that I have a solution for that. I’m trying to encourage people to consider and to reflect on things that are harmful, that aren’t working. 

There’s this amazing quote, and there’s a meme that goes around. “When a forest is more valuable deforested than forested, that’s when you know that capitalism isn’t working.” We don’t see the value unless it’s cut down, because that’s when it translates to some sort of commodification. It speaks volumes and goes to the heart of how we place value as a society.

The response in the natural world is very clear: the conditions for life are eroding. We’re in the midst of a six-grade mass extinction. What could be more clear? We have to try to do something different. 

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