The water agenda: an interview with filmmaker Liz Marshall

0 Posted by - April 14, 2010 - Blog, Conversations, Screen

There has been sudden explosion in documentaries looking at the problems and politics of water. Films like Water Life, Blue Gold, Thirst, Flow, The Water Front and others have focused their attention towards a contemporary issue facing the whole planet: access to clean water and water sustainability. Liz Marshall’s new documentary Water on the Table focuses in even closer, following water rights advocate Maude Barlow as she tirelessly fights, lobbies, talks, and debates her way toward a future where the world will secure accessible, clean and sustainable water resources for all. This is an urgent issue, as urgent as fossil fuels, and thinking otherwise is to dream in the plenitude of the west. Water is running out. Water is being privatized, commodified, bottled and packaged like cream cheese and water is being fought over. Many are already desperately going without and many are sketching out policies that will spell a future of water-as-commodity.

But many are resisting and fighting these realities and trends, and Maude Barlow is one such Water Warrior. As spokesperson for the Council of Canadians and as the more recently appointed First Water Advisor for the United Nations, Barlow has been at the forefront for water justice, and shows no sign of stopping. Marshall’s documentary on this champion is a fantastic film and an important piece of the water puzzle that hasn’t been explored in other films on the same topic. We managed to ask a few questions to Marshall between her own frenetic schedule of art and activism.

Art Threat: Why did you make Water on the Table?

Liz Marshall: Every so often an idea really sticks and won’t go away. It then of course requires stubborn dogged determination to usher it into the world. Water On The Table is an example of a film that I needed to make, no matter what. In 2003 I read Maude Barlow’s book Blue Gold, about the global water crisis – I was deeply moved by her warm, fiery narrative voice and commitment to water justice. I created a short special for BookTelevision: The Channel featuring Maude and one of her long-time opponents Terence Corcoran, Editor of the Financial Post. I was fascinated and disturbed by the ideological chasm between them, hence the seed was planted. In 2006, I revisited the idea and decided it would be my first feature length documentary; it would capture Maude’s character and activism, as well as the chilling opposition to her views. Why did I make WOTT? Simply put, because I had to.

What was the biggest obstacle, aside from funding, you faced in making this documentary?

Funding was the only obstacle. The biggest challenge in making the film was finding an intelligent balance and a flow in the edit suite between the three main elements: Maude’s story, what I call “the Maude thread”; the debates, and the cinematic subject of water. The integration of the debates was the most challenging because I wanted something deeper than a primer but needed to avoid the dense and nuanced nature of the issues, so, it was a fine line. We also didn’t want the debates to cancel out the opponents and make them watered-down next to Maude’s voice. The intention was to present critical arguments, to educate the audience and make them think. Initially, I just wanted to create a portrait of Maude, but over time I realised it would make for a stronger film to include her detractors. The reality is that Maude has many enemies and the opposition has a lot of power. I needed to show this.

Did you ever actually witness Maude sleeping? How about tired?

Sleeping? No, she doesn’t sleep, just kidding. Actually, Maude is a very private person and I respected her boundaries, but I think I still managed to get close enough to create a well rounded portrait. But yes, I witnessed her fatigue many times. She does a good job though at replenishing herself, although sometimes I get worried that she travels too much. That said, the world needs her.

There are plenty of recent films on the politics of water, what is different about WOTT (and how can people see WOTT)?

Yes, there are a few big and recent documentaries on water: FLOW: for the love of water by Irena Salina; Waterlife by Kevin McMahan, to name two great ones. WOTT is different for two main reasons: 1) it is character driven and is the only film that features Maude Barlow’s in-depth water-warrior story. 2) WOTT focuses primarily on Canada; our water heritage and the complex issues and responsibilities that go along with that.

What is the single most effective thing someone can do to help Canada and the world’s water situation after watching WOTT?

Stop drinking bottled water. Rejoice at the fact that we have some of the cleanest tap water in the world. Be mindful and grateful about our daily consumption of water, because we don’t have an endless supply. Talk about the film, pass it on, and grasp the main message and question: Is water a commodity like gold or oil? Or, is water a human right like air? If you believe that water is a human right, work to pressure the Canadian government to declare it a human right.

With the current climate on Canadian television and in the commercial cinemas, what do you think the future holds for documentary?

Docs Rock. Think positive. If you believe in something strongly enough, you can make it happen. Yes, it’s true that the industry is in a state of flux, but we mustn’t give up.

What are some of the best documentaries you have recently seen?

There are many, but here are five off the top of my head (not in order): Food Inc. The Betrayal: Nerakhoon. The Cove. Petropolis. H2Oil.

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