Following in the footsteps of her Marvel co-star Mark Ruffalo, actress-turned-filmmaker Ellen Page is funneling her considerable influence and resources into raising awareness around environmental justice. Last year, Ruffalo produced and starred in Todd Haynes’ under-appreciated “Dark Waters,” a narrative feature about the Dupont Teflon case. Since her breakout role in “Juno,” Page’s acting roles have always supported feminist perspectives. More recently, she also served as producer on films like “My Days of Mercy” and “Freeheld,” projects she also starred in that touched on issues surrounding incarceration and prison reform. Now, Page has stepped (almost) fully behind the camera, co-directing with pal Ian Daniel a timely and informative documentary about Nova Scotia’s history of environmental racism.
“There’s Something in the Water” borrows its title from the book on which is based, “There’s Something In The Water: Environmental Racism in Indigenous & Black Communities” by Ingrid R.G. Waldron. Using Waldron’s book as a guidepost, the film opens with Page reflections on growing up in Nova Scotia, complete with adorable baby photos and a sober voiceover. A clip of Page on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” from February of last year shows the actress calling out the impact of xenophobic leadership on marginalized communities. The film quickly focuses on Waldron to give a definition of environmental racism, a social justice term coined in the 1970s to highlight the disproportionate impact environmental injustice has on black, brown, and indigenous communities.
“Where you live has bearing in your well being,” Waldron says. “Your postal code determines your health.” In Nova Scotia, that means the black and indigenous communities who have born the brunt of harmful pollution, such as improper water treatment and toxic dump sites. The film is broken up into three sections, each focusing on a different site of environmental harm in Nova Scotia.
The first and most powerful of these stories is an African neighborhood in the town of Shelburne, which had the unfortunate distinction of housing the town dump for 75 years. The town once burned industrial, medical, and residential waste that blew directly into the neighborhood of primarily African Nova Scotian residents. Activist Louise Delisle serves as a sobering but affable guide to the community’s inflated rates of multiple myeloma. Louise leads the film’s most powerful scene, as she drives through the community pointing out every home housing a polluted well, people living with cancer, or — more often — people who died of cancer.
Somehow maintaining a gentle if serious disposition, Louise recalls growing up with the dump’s burning black smoke flowing over the yard she played in as a child: “We’d be lucky if we got to school without smelling like we’d been in some kind of chemical warfare.”
The second segment follows the indigenous Mi’qmaq community living in Boat Harbour, known as A’se’k by the First Nations people. Michelle Francis-Denny shares a similarly harrowing tale of the pulp and paper mill that tricked her grandfather, the tribe’s chief at the time, into signing away his rights to the tidal bay. Elders share painful memories of the first few days after the effluent treatment facility opened, in which all the fish in the previously lush waterway turned up dead. Page must help Francis-Denny unroll a scroll of all of the family and friends she lost to cancer at early ages — so long it doesn’t fit into one frame.
The final chapter ends in an ongoing fight in Stewiacke, where a group of women who call themselves water protectors are actively resisting a project that would hollow out natural salt caverns to create natural underground gas storage. The project would dissolve salt deposits to be pumped into nearby river, raising the salinity six times higher than levels that would be habitable for fish.
Page and Daniel appear briefly in frame from time to time, breaking the fourth wall to show the human element behind the project. We see Page covering her mouth when visiting a dump sight, or scrambling to get a shot of a “Dump Closed” sign. Louise lights up at the recognition of a member of Page’s family, bringing home the filmmaker’s personal connection to the story. Such peaks behind the curtain seem to indicate the scrappy nature of the production, though with Page’s resources it’s unclear how reliable that narrative is. Still, it’s fun to see Page manning the camera herself, as most celebrity passion projects aren’t so hands on. Clearly, she’s got more on the line than just her name.
“There’s Something in the Water” doesn’t break any molds in terms of documentary form, and it’s less impressive as cinema than activism. But it’s easily digestible and well researched, with the aid of Waldron’s book. The film sheds a vital light on the decades — nay, centuries — of mistreatment marginalized communities have suffered at the hands of corporations, aided by their own government. What’s more, every major interview subject is a woman of color. That’s a radical enough notion to earn genuine props; onscreen examples of women of color in authoritative capacities are unfortunately rare. It’s a valiant first directorial effort from Page and Daniel, noble of purpose and a sign of good things to come.
“There’s Something in the Water” is now streaming on Netflix.