Best Documentary at the Vail Film Festival, International Jury Prize Winner at the Mumbai Film Festival, Best Human Interest Film at the Flagstaff Mountain Film Festival, Nominated for the Grand Jury Prize Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival
Flow could be branded anti-corporate, anti-free market propaganda, except the problem that it nails – the corporate exploitation and mismanagement of our most vital resource, water – is happening within the borders of the United States by American controlled multinationals.
That’s perhaps the saddest realization: the chief reason this documentary will have such powerful resonance among western viewers is because its final act shows how a problem, easily branded a foreign issue, happened not only in Michigan, but that the citizens of Mescosta county didn’t win a similar battle fought by villagers and townsfolk in India.
Water, as termed by author Maude Barlow, is blue gold (hence the name of her best-selling book and the related film), and it’s a prized commodity that, according to the filmmakers, is as valuable as oil, and that’s why water management companies like Suez, Vivendi, Bechtel, and Thames have honed in on Third World countries and sold a mixed bag of clean water for prices that sometimes exceed the cost of oil.
The conundrum is more absurd: even when clean water is introduced to townsfolk, the service fee is beyond their means, and they’re forced to return to the dirty rivers – alleged by the interviewed townsfolk and activists to have been polluted by the same companies who came with goodwill smiles and promises to improve their quality of life.
In a South African town, a man shows us one of the cartoon booklets – in English, with a character named “Tappie” – the water management company uses to explain the water distribution process to its primarily non-English clients, involving prepaid tokens, and awkwardly pressing a button on a low-slung pump.
As explained by Basil Bold, an executive from Invensys Metering Systems, “You have to change the thinking, the culture of people to understand that they should pay [for water]. You shouldn’t have to force them to pay [but they should] want to pay.”
“They should want to pay?”
In Columbia, a river flowed with stinking blood from an abattoir, and it’s only when townsfolk rebelled against the destruction of their water source that the government took back water management from a multinational corporation. Oscar Olivera, leader of 2000 Cochabamba Water Wars, characterizes his battle with a multinational as something quite universal. “It’s a fight between a dignified life, a life with joy, or [settling for] a life under submission, a life with bitterness, with sorrow, with insecurity - which isn’t living.”
In India, there’s a patchwork of nonsense laws corporations use to regard water as a commodity, and apply towards local farmers who collect rainwater to grow local food, and become self-sustaining – basically what they’ve been doing for a thousand years, for free.
The World Bank and the IMF are also cited as villains by an Argentinian activist for facilitating a takeover scheme whereby financial loans were withheld until water management was handled by a recognized corporation. As one critic pints out, the World Bank knows how to spend $1 billion, not the $1000 that’s needed to solve local problems.
Flow covers a lot of ground, including claims that most bottled water is unregulated, and can even come from city taps instead of idyllic water springs, and it’s a frightening statement on how a handful of multinational bullies – which includes Nestle, Coca-Cola, and PepsiCo - are making easy money in countries who, for lack of financial resources or foresight, have seemingly surrendered their own municipal water management rights.
Director Irena Salina closes her film with a montage that’s clearly designed as a rallying call to arms, and it’s the film’s weakest component simply because it assumes we haven’t already understood the wrongness of what’s being done to the water in Third World and North American countries. The film’s visuals are a clever mix of elegance, simplicity, and profane, and we’re appropriately left with a strong sense of outrage.
Succinctly stated by environmental lawyer Jim Olson, “Water is for survival, and who owns the water for survival owns you,” and when that survival is threatened, desperation – through slow legal means, or patient Ghandian protest – kicks in and people wise up. It’s just sad things have become so terrifying.
Mongrel Media’s DVD offers a decent transfer of the film, and comes with a good collection of extras (strangely, none listed on the DVD sleeve), including expanded interviews, a director commentary track, and a pair of vintage educational shorts on water management: City Water Supply (1941) from Encyclopaedia Britannica, and Water (1953) from Almanac Films.
© 2009 Mark R. Hasan