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natural TIFF "Waterlife" Interview with Kevin McMahon (Director) (10/29)

natural TIFF "Waterlife" Interview with Kevin McMahon (Director) (10/29)

The Canadian documentary Waterlife scrutinizes the Great Lakes, which holds 20 percent of the world's supply of fresh water. Director Kevin McMahon's film journey from Lake Superior to the Saint Lawrence River explores the long-lasting damage to the lakes caused by human beings, but also the "emotional sustenance" they provide to millions of lives.
©2010 TIFF

---The Great Lakes is a big subject. How did you find a focus for the documentary?

My first feature was something called "The Falls," about Niagara Falls, because when I was a reporter I worked in that region. I always had an interest in water issues and wanted to come back and make a movie about water. With the Great Lakes there are many different issues. There's poison in the water, invasive species. You could make a movie on any of these subjects. I could have made a whole film about Toronto Harbor, because there are problems there that are common in harbors all over the world. The journalistic approach is to treat them as an issue, but in order to make it work emotionally as a movie you have to find a narrative. There was this old children's book called "Paddle to the Sea," which was made into a film by the National Film Board of Canada fifty years ago. I decided to steal that. A Native American kid carves a canoe and sticks it in the water at Lake Superior and goes all through the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean. I thought I'd use that story, but instead of having a canoe I'll just do it with the water. And as it turns out, I have that Native American woman in the film who is walking the whole length of the lakes.

---It must have taken years.

It took her six years, but I didn't know about her when I started shooting. It was weird that I got this person who was able to bring a narrative story line to the movie. So, to answer your question, it's sort of a fake narrative. It's the same thing Michael Moore does. He wants to look at the health care system or the financial situation, so he's creates a phony narrative. "I'm going to talk to the head of GM, or I'm going to take these people to Cuba." It's stuff that provides an emotional arc.

---Unlike Michael Moore's movies, yours isn't particularly adversarial.

I could have done that, and I thought about it. It would have been smarter and the film would have been more popular. It seems to be the only way the media knows how to operate now. We were taught that when I started out in journalism. That's Michael's whole method of operation, and I think that's what makes it popular. People like a good fight. But for me, even though I think there's a lot of culpability and there are many corporations I could attack, water is a collective story. It would be false to lay the blame on anyone in particular, because who would you pick? Here you have forty million people living around a body of water. I chose not to do that. Unfortunately, I'm fair-minded and that's why my work is not as successful as Michael Moore's (laughs).
©2010 TIFF

---The balance seems careful. You have all these anonymous voiceovers, and for every statement that takes the side of business you have a refuting statement.

Somebody criticized those voiceovers, saying, "We can't tell if they're telling the truth." They may be right, but, again, it's a collective story. There is going to be back-and-forth opinions. We don't see any environmental heroes in the film, except Josephine, the Native American woman, who isn't really doing anything except this quixotic journey. I would say that the tension in the film is between, "Oh, we're really screwed because it's polluted," and "Wow, it's really beautiful." The back-and-forth is about that. Everything else is human folly. We all do these stupid things, and we end up living around a cesspool. What are we supposed to do about it?

---Someone in the movie says the lakes provide "emotional sustenance." Can you elaborate on that idea in terms of what the movie presents?

Every culture has something like that. You go to the mountains or you go to the seaside. It's literally recreation. I think that's what the person is talking about. It's what we're trying to get at with the kids playing in slow motion in the water and all the landscape footage. We're trying to reaffirm this sense that there's a lot of beauty out there, so that people realize there's something worth protecting. Here's a great thing, and it's not just, "We're screwed and the water is polluted," which is true. It's also to push this idea that there's something valuable to protect.

---Like that scene with the men in the canoes on the Chicago River. Even though the river is filthy they're still enjoying it as a waterway.

They are, sure. I mean, they're doing it to prove a point, which is that we should be able to canoe on this river, even though people would never canoe on the Chicago River. It smells bad.

---There are a lot of hard facts in the film, which would seem to make it closer to an educational film than a standard documentary.

It's part of the job. I'm a journalist at heart so I will never lose that desire to inform. Film festivals are exciting, but ultimately the legacy for a movie like this is in education. It's going to be used in schools or for public interest groups. There's a big umbrella group of Great Lakes environmental organizations who are striving to get their message across, and it's hard for them to explain something like invasive species. So the value of a film like this is that they just have to show it. I'm screening it in Chicago in the spring. There's this organization that Robert Kennedy, Jr., heads called the Waterkeepers. Their objective is for every body of water in North America to have a protective organization. They want to use the film to explain the Asian carp problem. As shown in the film, those fish are heading toward the Great Lakes and they will cause significant biological problems if they get in.

---That was quite an effective scene in the film, with the carp jumping out of the water into people's boats and nets. It really showed how aggressive they were.

They're unbelievable. But here's the thing. Since we made the film it's been found that the electric barrier erected on the river doesn't work. And they're starting to find Asian carp DNA--bits of fish eggs and scales--in Lake Michigan. So alarm bells have gone off. There's a court battle. Seven of the eight Great Lake states have launched a lawsuit against Illinois and against Chicago to make them close the river so the fish can't get in. There's a battle going on and it's hard when they go to court or go before Congress or even before the public and try to explain these matters. They can't get the point across without some kind of visual aid. So I see my role as providing the evidence of what's going on. If you read the newspapers published around the Great Lakes there would be nothing in that film you wouldn't know. But I've been to dozens and dozens of screenings around the lakes and people say, "I had no idea." Maybe it's because they don't read the newspapers, or maybe it's because until you see it in a movie that puts it all together it doesn't have the same emotional impact.

---Is that why you used animation to explain the basic science?

Some people criticized the film since they thought I couldn't decide if it's supposed to be an art movie or a science movie. I think the animations are beautiful myself, but you can't understand what it means to dump toxins into the water unless you can actually see them at the molecular level. If there were kids with two heads, it would be simple. If this were thalidomide or Minamata Disease or effects you can show in a very visceral way it would be different.

---It's difficult to show, visually, a male frog turning female because of hormonal imbalances caused by pollution. They look alike.

That's right. How do you depict the effects of DNA changes 20 years from now? That's what all these pollutants are really about. And it's something people ought to take seriously. So I felt as if I had to find a way to depict it.
©2010 TIFF

---Has the movie had any effect?

People get fired up by the movie who live around there. We set up web sites to channel that energy. One is an educational endeavor aimed at kids, and the other works specifically with Waterkeepers and other environmental groups. People say, "What do I do?" And you say, "Go to the web site and there is this menu of options." And that's worked. It's ultimately political. All environmental issues are essentially related to infrastructure: Mass society consuming resources and burning stuff and shitting where we shouldn't be shitting. But there haven't been any legislative changes.

---The Great Lakes border on two countries. Does that affect the issue?

Whenever you have multiple jurisdictions it makes it easier to ignore problems. You've got Canada and the United States, and then you've got all the American states and two Canadian provinces. Canadians have a great sense of their own virtue, and they think they're very pure relative to the States, but, in fact, Americans are more engaged in the Great Lakes in terms of science and legislation and efforts to clean them up. But it's like the oceans. The oceans are a mess, because everybody can say, "It's not us. It's the country down the road there," wherever it happens to be.

---You bookend the movie with the story about the Beluga whales dying of cancer and make the point that it's difficult to blame anyone because there are no certifiable connections.

That's right, and it's the aim of the movie to show those connections. There's a guy in the movie who says, "You can never say this disease was caused by this chemical," but actually in the case of those beluga whales you can prove that the poison in them came from Lake Erie or Lake Ontario because there are things that are in them that are only made in those places. But you can't make a firm connection. Scientists talk about correlation and causation: You can say there's a correlation but that doesn't mean there's causation. The obvious example is climate change. Everybody can instinctively tell that climate change is happening and that it's probably caused by humans. What it comes down to is: Who is willing to make the sacrifice. Nobody wants to do that. If you're a petrochemical company you can say, Prove it. That's where the poets have it over the scientists. Ultimately, the solutions to these problems are political, and ultimately the motivation for political solutions is going to come from emotional truths rather than scientific truths. I don't think that any of us raised in a rational tradition would argue that that's a good thing. I prefer to rely on rationality, but in a world of electronic media there's no point in waiting for rationality to do the job. It's up to us to use the emotional content built into these tools. The danger is that you make propaganda. You don't want to make propaganda.

---That goes back to the art-versus-science argument. If you use aesthetic tools to make your point, there's always the danger of people saying. "What are you trying to do? Why not just make your point directly?"

That's the challenge. You want to include enough evidence to satisfy rational minds, but it doesn't take an understanding of complex science to get the point. Most of the factories we went to wouldn't let us shoot, except for the paper plant. They were really proud of the fact that 90 percent of the crap that they put into the water they take out. And they think that's great. But what I hear and what the audience hears is: What about the other 10 percent? You draw your own conclusions.

(Interviewed by Philip Brasor)

Film Information

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KEIRIN.JPThe 23rd Tokyo International Film Festival will be held with funds provided by Japan Keirin Association.TIFF History
22nd Tokyo International Film Festival(2009)