AIFF 2017- Activism in Film, Activism after Film What Lies Upstream
About three-quarters of the way through What Lies Upstream, writer and director Cullen Hoback unexpectedly takes the microphone from the confused host at an event titled “Safe Water for West Virginia.” Hoback is in the midst of a two-year investigation into the contamination of 300,000 West Virginians’ drinking water with a dangerous chemical, MCHM, starting in 2014. So far, he had found corporate negligence, health and environmental agency wrongdoing and ineptitude, and despicable collusion between elected officials and industry lobbyists.
Hoback announces to the audience at the Safe Water event that he has found definitive evidence of another chemical, two times more toxic than MCHM, in Huntington, West Virginia’s public drinking water. Unable to trust company, government, or independent test results, he had taken tap water samples himself and had them tested by an authoritative and reliable lab. His cinematographer, Vince Sweeney, captures the crowd’s reaction.
If What Lies Upstream were Erin Brockovich-esque (she appears in the film testifying before a government panel), the shocked crowd would have risen to their feet, proclaimed their fury and righteous indignation, and stormed the headquarters of any number of villains: American Water (a private supplier of drinking water in West Virginia), or the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, or Dow, Dupont, or Bayer. Instead, Hoback receives indifferent stares, a few puzzled expressions—”aren’t we celebrating safe water?”—and a smattering of applause when he finishes.
It is perhaps debatable whether a documentary filmmaker ought to shape the events he is filming as Hoback does. After all, the purpose of any documentary is to generate an effect on the audience and potentially inspire it to action, rather than the filmmaker himself doing so. The very theme of this year’s Ashland Independent Film Festival is “Activism and Film.” Hoback goes well beyond introducing a camera and microphone into the circumstances when he conducts the film-sponsored water tests and seizes the microphone at the Safe Water meeting. Did Hoback’s actions compromise his integrity? Does the film audience lose its trust in him as West Virginians lost faith in the quality of their drinking water?
One recognizes Hoback’s frustration and outrage. If one judges a documentary’s merit on whether it keeps one awake at night contemplating conspiracy theories, then What Lies Upstream is excellent. Clearly, based on Hoback’s findings, the overall system for protecting clean drinking water in the United States is more fouled than any of the polluted rivers in West Virginia’s “Chemical Valley.”
A prologue and epilogue filmed as the water contamination scandal unfolded in Flint, Michigan in 2016 further supports Hoback’s conclusions. Duplicitous regulatory agencies, brazen and callous corporate lobbyists, and laughably incompetent politicians contribute to the literal poisoning of their communities and to civic society as a whole. The most telling interview Hoback conducts, with Dr. David Lewis, identified as an “EPA Scientist and Whistleblower,” contains particularly staggering revelations. One wonders if Hoback has been on a toxic cleanse after his project. The greater question is, will audiences of What Lies Upstream, especially residents of the Rogue Valley who will soon have to confront the efforts of a fossil-fuel industry company potentially abetted by sympathetic federal regulators to build a natural gas pipeline crossing hundreds of streams and rivers in Southern Oregon, take any action, or will they return to caressing their smartphones and drinking their bottled waters like the audience Hoback addressed in West Virginia?
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