By kindergarten, every child learns that water is the source of life. But as long as we aren't stranded in the desert or staring down an albatross in the middle of a salty ocean, we tend to take it for granted. Irena Salina's documentary Flow makes the convincing case that the safety, cleanliness and availability of water is at risk of vanishing in a cloud of corporate profits.
The film contains a remarkable body of information and interviews on a myriad of diverging topics, ranging from volatile chemicals in some US supplies to corporate control of third-world water. While the expansive subject matter requires some jumping around, Flow paces each segment very well. In just 84 minutes, Salina provides a crash course on the problems and their potential solutions.
The most compelling segments depict the privatization of water in developing societies that haven't caught up with the industrialized lifestyles. As more and more factories and plants go into operation, more and more pollutants corrupt the rivers and streams that were once the communities' life force. The people of these areas are told not to drink from the contaminated, freely available water supply on their land, but instead to pay for sanitized water and purification pills. But when they can't afford them, they don't have much of a choice.
Some may recognize the privatization of Bolivia's water supply as part of a villainous plot in the latest James Bond movie, but that fiction contains some truth. A small number of water companies have taken over the job of providing many third-world countries, including Bolivia with water. And of course the object of the corporation is to make money for its shareholders. It's all a normal part of capitalism unless you consider water a vital part of life rather than a commodity. Most of the water experts and activists blame the World Bank for going for large-scale, expensive solutions when a series of smaller initiatives, like affordable UV light sanitation devices, could better solve the problem.
Turning water into wine doesn't seem as a miraculous a feat after watching the film's examination of bottled water, which costs 900 times the price of tap water--and in many cases comes straight from the tap. It has next to no government regulation, and companies often jeopardize communities' supplies while pumping them. (Fans of Penn & Teller will recognize a clip from an episode the duo's "Bullshit.")
While the film gives a corporate water flukey or two some screen-time, "Flow" is clearly an opinion piece out to win hearts and minds. Salina lays out her case well, and tries to impress a feeling of hope rather than despair. If nothing else, her film will make you think twice next time you pass the bottled water in the supermarket.
Oscilloscope presents "Flow" on a quality 16:9 anamorphic transfer with vivid colors and a crisp picture. The disc's compression maintains a loyal representation of the original film, even in scenes with fast-moving animation, flowing water and busting crowds.
However, in this case, quality compression doesn't equal a perfect picture. The documentary was obviously shot on different types cameras with different quality lenses, and augmented by stock footage from various sources. Some scenes were obviously recorded in a compressed, interlaced and/or a low-resolution format, and the DVD loyally retains all the odd quirks and distracting artifacts that were in that picture to begin with. Certain shots are noisier than others, and during a couple moments weird, distracting spots flash around.
Overall, a very good job was done digitally timing the footage during post-production and preparing it for DVD. This DVD looks as good as it possibly could. But the nature of the documentary's construction prevents it from being a show-piece.
Like the video, the film's audio sources were not always recorded with the highest quality microphones, but they are mixed and mastered very well in both the 5.1 and stereo tracks. The music sounds great, and the interviewees are always easy to hear and understand. The film features English subtitles for the hearing impaired, and burned-in English subtitles during scenes in which people speak foreign languages.
If "Flow" gets you interested in its subject matter, the DVD's special features are a nice jumping-off point to become better informed of and more involved in the issue. Unfortunately, the DVD is almost too generous with the extra content, and some of it will tire all but the most ardent aqua-enthusiasts. The movie alone will have loaded you with as much water-related information as you can process in day, but there are many places to go from there.
The disc comes in a handsome, eco-friendly cardboard slipcase, and unfolds to reveal a four-panel illustration of waterworks. The same illustration is the basis for the DVD's animated main menu, and static sub-menues.
The jovial, conversational audio commentary features Salina and editor Caitlin Dixon, who reminisce about the making of the film and remember some stories about how they worked out the film's structure. While interesting at times, it's only intermittently insightful to the filmmaking process, and a lack of preparation occasionally shows through (at times, the commenters can't remember key details about the books and sources they recommend.). Some of the information they discuss is already covered in the film or in other DVD extras.
The three deleted scenes would have hurt the final cut's pacing, but provide further information, including the rocket fuel in some U.S. states' water supply, an ill-conceived plan to link all of India's rivers together, and community farms run by South African squatters who steal water from the government. While well-assembled, they appear to have come from a low-res dub, and are not up to the picture-quality standards of the feature.
There are even more detours in the Expanded Interviews section. Unlike the deleted scenes, these interviews consist simply of some of the film's experts talking at length on their area of expertise. The filmmakers didn't cut in additional footage to illustrate the points, and did not polish the presentation (only Basil Bold's interview includes additional footage, and it only features the same clip shown in the finished film). As such, these interviews have even more limited appeal. Casual viewers will likely reach for remote to go back to the top menu before the first segment ends. To the filmmaker's credit, they give more time to Bold, the Managing Director of Invensys Metering Systems, a corporate heavy. I suspect, however, that they did so for an excuse to show a rather amusing gaffe at the end of the interview.
The Call to Resistance shares many of the characteristics of the Expanded Interviews, but with a focus on activism. Sunita Narain talks about the fight to make Coke and Pepsi regulate bacteria in their water and products in India, and Steven Starr describes the effort to add water as a right to life in the United Nations' Human Rights Declaration. There are also weblinks for additional information.
As if that weren't enough, the DVD producers dug up two archival shorts, for, uh...fans of old educational shorts about water, I suppose. The first film, a 1941 Encyclopedia Britianitca educational film aptly titled City Water Supplydryly accounts the water treatment process, including the construction of aqueducts and reservoirs, bacterial testing procedures and purification procedure. If you're still awake after that one, you can check out Water a 1953 Schnee-Moss educational short that's a little more entertaining due to the narrator's attempts to wax poetic.
Flow offers an eye-opening, thought-provoking look into an issue that doesn't receive enough of media attention. This well-crafted and informative documentary is almost guaranteed to change the way you think about the liquid that pours out of your taps every day. That said, it doesn't demand repeat viewings. The collection of extras and the audio commentary give the DVD a boost in the replay department, but only for those who really want to get into the topic of water purification and distribution.
Jeremy Mathews has been subjecting films to his criticism since 2000. He has contributed to several publications, including Film Threat, Salt Lake City Weekly, the Salt Lake Tribune, In Utah This Week and The Wasatch Journal. He also runs the blog The Same Dame and fronts the band NSPS.