To the long and ever growing list of pressing environmental concerns we can add the global water crisis. Despite its indispensability for human survival, water hasn’t gained traction as a political issue (at least not in America), and so filmmaker Irena Salina interjects “Flow” into the conversation as a corrective; she wants her film to do for the world water crisis what “An Inconvenient Truth” did for climate change. While the facts revealed in the documentary, as conveyed in interviews with numerous activists and scientists, are not exactly stunning revelations — or maybe at this point I’m just unsurprised by tales of apathetic governments or corporate greed trumping concerns for public welfare — it manages to bring to light an issue which merits more attention but often gets lost amidst headline-grabbers like global warming and oil shortages.
Unfortunately, unlike the powerful minimalism of Davis Guggenheim and Al Gore‘s gambit, Salina’s messier handling of the material makes for a less compelling viewing experience. Although commendably ambitious in scope, “Flow” has structural problems which stem directly from its attempts to attack the issue from too many fronts in its brief 84-minute running time. At once addressing scarcity, pollution and waterborne diseases, displacement of populations by dam construction, the bottled-water industry, and, most worryingly, the movement toward privatization, the documentary’s message is so cluttered it fails to take on meaningful shape. Skipping from one subtopic to the next in a listing of ills clearly of a piece but not presented in a particularly coherent fashion, “Flow” often comes off as confusing and contradictory. On the one hand, alarmist introductory talking-head clips detail the dangers of unregulated contaminants present in American public water supplies but, on the other, note the disastrous effects of privatization in other countries and the sham promise of bottled water — less regulated than most municipal taps and wildly wasteful — which leaves you to wonder what choice the consumer has in the face of these “don’t drink the water” directives.
“Flow” also attempts a global canvassing — as it moves between the U.S., South Africa, Bolivia, and India, among other countries — in order to emphasize that we’re all in this situation together. While in some ways this provides a welcome widening of what could be a myopic perspective (it is the “world” water crisis, after all), the conflation of nations and their particular problems often blurs the specifics of prescriptive measures. And the representation of somewhat romanticized images culled from developing nations, such as those of young women carrying buckets of water on their heads or children playing in rivers, often results in unsophisticated emotional appeals pitched too closely to those old Sally Struthers commercials advocating on behalf of starving children in Africa. This hard-sell strategy is most apparent when Fatima Meer — Nelson Mandela‘s biographer — intones over the image of a small child staring into the camera: “We are quite sympathetic to the fact that you have to run this city and that you need money, but are you going to try to get this money out of people who cannot pay you at all?”
Also undercutting the documentary’s efficacy is its occasional New Age abstractness — perhaps unavoidable given the inclusion of so many images of flowing water — underlined by Ghandian leader Siddharaj Dhadda: “If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them? You don’t own them.” Although this is a lovely sentiment, it has little concrete meaning in a modern world where water mostly gets piped to populations, corporations lobby to privatize, and governments often let them. Such rhapsodizing further muddies the movie and makes it hard to determine what the average concerned citizen can do to effect real change.
Being blunted over the head with a litany of water woes, you come away thinking everything about the existing supply infrastructure everywhere in the world is corrupt, but surely the helplessness this engenders is not the preferred result the activist doc has in mind. Vague suggestions about the power of community organizing are floated, and examples given in the forms of Michigan citizens waging a legal battle with a Nestle water-bottling plant and Austin locals harvesting rainwater on their roofs, but little else — other than signing the website’s petition asking the United Nations to include the right to water in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — is advised. It’s difficult to take too much to task an effort so clearly born of love and tears, especially one which may help put on the map an issue in need of more publicity — but to galvanize the grassroots, a more rigorously eloquent call-to-action than “Flow” may be necessary before the public sits up and takes notice.
[Kristi Mitsuda is a Reverse Shot staff writer.]