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Flow (Review)

Documentary looks at the privatization of water

By Steven Rosen · December 3rd, 2008 · Movies
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The latest James Bond movie, Quantum of Solace, is a pretty glum affair — Daniel Craig’s Bond is more sociopathic than stylish and the relentless action is more ugly than exciting. But there is one strangely interesting element.

The story centers on an evil international agency trying to privatize and control the water supply in Bolivia. Not gold, not oil, not diamonds, not plutonium … just plain old water. How’d they ever come up with that bizarre, seemingly fantastical plot line? After all, we all know water belongs to the people, just like air. Right?

Turns out it’s true — scarily true, based on the information presented in Irena Salina’s valuable and eye-opening new documentary, Flow (For Love of Water), which opens a brief run at The Esquire on Friday. It poses a profound question: “Can anyone (with enough money) own the water?”

There’s an effort, pushed by the World Bank, to privatize water supplies in Third World countries, to disastrous effect. Meanwhile, multinational corporations in the U.S. and elsewhere are tapping local water supplies in order to bottle and sell their glorified tap water (and soda pop) around the world.

The film is partly a paean to the clarity and life force that is water and partly a muckraking environmentalist call-to-arms, like An Inconvenient Truth, King Corn or Who Killed the Electric Car? It reminds us to be ever vigilant toward the dangers of privatization and deregulation. The film is one of the first releases from Oscilloscope Pictures, the company owned by Beastie Boy Adam “MCA” Yauch.

Salina, working with co-cinematographer Pablo de Selva, finds visual inspiration in her topic — raindrops falling on oceans and lakes, shafts of light penetrating underwater, the blue planet seen from afar, women in multihued robes lining up in rural villages for water from community pumps.

And there is inspired use of old, offbeat footage — a cartoon of a frog putting on make-up, a scene from The Third Man. As the film travels from the U.S. to Bolivia to India to South Africa, it gathers a Koyaanisqatsi-like poetic quality, aided by Christophe Julien’s subtly Eastern score.

But it also hits hard. There is a sickening scene in Bolivia, where workers cover up with dirt a creek that flows red with blood and raw sewage from a nearby slaughterhouse.

Using interviews with environmentalists and activists in several countries, as well as reporting from the scene, Flow sets out its principal case. As a condition of providing loans to desperately debt-ridden countries like Bolivia, the World Bank has insisted they privatize their water supplies to more effectively supply water and meet needs. Three for-profit multinationals have moved in to do that work — Vivendi, Thames Water and Suez. This is, of course, radically different from the long-established notion that water is a public utility.

Why this push? Ronnie Kasrils, a former minister of water affairs and forestry in South Africa, says, “People have a view that water is provided free from heavens, from God, so why should they pay for (it)? But if you’re going to receive water through a sustained way, with pipes and tanks, a lot of money has to go into that provision.”

Flow presents a quite-literal example of the trickle-down theory at its worst. In Bolivia, people rioted. In other places around the globe, free water sources — community pumps and wells — were shut down or made limited. So poor people turn to polluted river water for drinking supplies.

“You cannot bring the amount of good-quality water, health care, education or anything else to a community that needs it if you’re also providing profit for investors,” says Maude Barlow, author of Blue Gold, who is interviewed extensively by Salina.

The film also takes a dim view of the bottled-water industry, which it says makes false claims, is poorly regulated and creates an environmental problem with all its plastic. The case study presented here, of a fight in Stanwood, Mich., when Nestle Corp. (Perrier, Arrowhead, Poland Springs) moved in, is truly concerning. By pulling out so much water, the film claims, it started to lower the community’s supply. And not only was it not paying for that water, but it received a tax abatement to build its plant — presumably because that created jobs.

“Does their right to use water like other landowners mean they have a right to put it in a bottle and sell it,” asks Jim Olson, an environmental attorney who took the corporation to trial and won a lower-court victory.

The Michigan Supreme Court, however, allowed the company to continue.

The film’s ultimate mission is to gain support for the addition of a 31st Article, “a right to clean and accessible water,” to the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It encourages viewers to visit its www.flowthefilm.com Web site to sign a petition. It makes a good case. Grade: B plus

Opens Dec. 5. Check out theaters and show times, see the film's trailer and find nearby bars and restaurants here.



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