Oscilloscope // 2008 // 84 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Daniel MacDonald (Retired) // December 9th, 2008
How did a handful of corporations steal our water?
Consumers worldwide spend an estimated $100 billion per year on bottled water, while the United Nations estimates that for $30 billion, every person on Earth could be provided fresh, clean drinking water. More than twenty million Americans have rocket fuel in their tap water, which is known to interfere with the thyroid system. The World Bank needs to loan about $200 billion per year to remain profitable, making enormous, and enormously disruptive, dam projects around the world very attractive -- especially given the close ties between World Bank executives and the water industry. Welcome to the world as presented by FLOW: For Love Of Water.
It takes remarkably little time for FLOW to set its apoplectic tone, and the film's fever pitch doesn't let up throughout its brief 84-minute running time. The worldwide injustices documented by the piece are frequently enraging, always engaging. This is a movie built on passion and urgency.
Unfortunately, it is also rather one-sided, and that takes away from the potency of FLOW's message. Interview subjects, men and women from across the globe, are mainly activists and lobbyists who are quick to indict large corporations for making profits on the backs of the poorest of the poor, people who can hardly afford to pay for clean water and may be driven to drink bacteria-laden river water instead. The message reinforced is that no one should own water, and so no one should be able to sell it. In the audio commentary, director Irena Salina (Ghost Bird) says, "The business of water is the business of life."
But where is the opposing side in this documentary? Companies that install clean water systems in remote, Third World villages, for example, incur costs to do so and use the money of investors -- who expect a return on their investment -- to bring projects to fruition. So is it wrong for them to charge for the water their pipes deliver? Nestle set up a bottled water factory in Michigan and pumped huge amounts of water from the area without paying a cent for it because state laws indicated they didn't have to (surely a reason Nestle built the factory in the first place), leading to protests and lawsuits by local residents. Should Nestle have pulled out on altruistic grounds? The arrival of a Coca-Cola plant in India coincided with an outbreak of illness in the community, leading to a two-year sit-in protest. Was Coke responsible for the illness, and did they know it? These are all questions that go unasked in FLOW, much less answered. There's an undercurrent of assumed maliciousness that I found distasteful.
I was encouraged when executives from three of the world's largest water companies appeared -- each of whom has a vested interest in projects in India, South Africa, and Bolivia -- because I wanted to hear their take on the issue of selling this ultimate natural resource. Alas, if a proper interview was conducted with these gentlemen, it doesn't appear here -- instead we get short snippets of them talking about profits, accompanied by ominous music and bookended with clips of their impoverished victims. This is not to say that all people don't have a right to clean drinking water; on the contrary, water is necessary for life and should be a human right. But if a for-profit company ends up being the supplier of that water, is it ethical to allow them to incur the infrastructure costs, then criticize them for making money? If Nestle takes advantage of lax laws to cash in on the bottled water craze, are they to blame or are the politicians who made those laws? The governmental representatives of the countries visited in FLOW are virtually absent from the piece, when I would think they should be held far more accountable than private companies for the well-being of their citizens.
The DVD features a video transfer of varying quality -- sources range from old stock footage to recent interviews conducted on what appears to be a consumer-grade camera, so it doesn't have the level of detail or pop that one would expect from a higher-budget picture. Still, FLOW is comprised mostly of talking heads, so the picture is usually acceptable. Audio is presented in both stereo and 5.1 mixes, but I would be hard-pressed to tell the difference most of the time: only once were the surround channels noticeably engaged.
Special features are impressive for a low-budget documentary, starting with a chatty audio commentary by Salina and editor Caitlin Dixon. The pair alternate between discussing shooting conditions, commenting on the onscreen interview subjects, and expanding on the issues presented in the piece. It's a non-stop conversation and an easy listen. A few expanded interviews are included, one of which is with the Managing Director of a South African water metering system company in which he makes the point that users aren't paying for the water, their paying for the infrastructure, a point sorely missed from the feature. Three deleted scenes and a "call to resistance" section round out the package.
FLOW is a worthwhile documentary with a clear and noble purpose: to motivate and mobilize citizens for the cause of providing potable water to the most vulnerable people in the world. Unfortunately, by seemingly passing judgment on and vilifying many in the water industry, it ends up being less convincing than it could have been. Water may well be the greatest crisis humans will face in the twenty-first century, but it will only be solved through realistic and grounded discourse. FLOW is guilty of telling only one side of the story.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 84 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Audio Commentary
* Expanded interviews
* Deleted scenes
* Call to Resistance
* Water PSAs
* Official Site