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10/29 (Fri) Q&A - natural TIFF "Waterlife" Kevin McMahon (Director)

10/29 (Fri) Q&A - natural TIFF "Waterlife" Kevin McMahon (Director)

Over the past few decades, various legislative acts regarding environmental conservation have aimed to reduce the intrusion of pollutants into and around the waterways and lakes of North America.
©2010 TIFF

Waterlife, a 2009 documentary by Canadian director and writer Kevin McMahon, shows that substantial challenges remain today. The film focuses on the numerous environmental problems facing the five Great Lakes, situated between the U.S. and Canada. The beautiful home to thirty-five million people and the source of 20 percent of the world’s supply of fresh water, the lakes are shown to also be a mix of human waste, industrial chemicals, pharmaceuticals and invasive predators, such as sea lampreys, which have led to a substantial decline in lake trout.

With an airy and poppy soundtrack that includes Brian Eno, Sufjan Stevens, and Sigur Ros, McMahon documents the cancer-stricken beluga whales in the St. Lawrence River, the bacterial pollution of the Chicago River and the high level of estrogen in Lake Erie, which is slowly turning male frogs into females.

McMahon was on hand at the TOHO CINEMAS ROPPONGI HILLS for a screening on Friday. An enthusiastic group of film fans were in the audience to ask him questions afterward.

Q: Could you offer some opening words?

Kevin McMahon (KM): I would like to say thank you very much to the Tokyo International Film Festival for inviting Waterlife to come and screen here. It's a great honor to be part of the festival.

Q: There are many possible themes for films. Why did you choose water?

KM: My hometown is Niagara Falls [Ontario]. So I grew up as a child around a lot of water. I''ve seen that water become polluted over time so I was concerned about that and wanted to make a movie about this problem.

Q: How long did the shooting take?

KM: It took about a year to shoot the film.

Q: There are many different types of shots in the film. What was the percentage of computer graphics [CG] used?

KM: It's fairly small. I don't know what percentage. But it was necessary to use some CG because we can't understand what the pollution in the water is doing to us unless we can see it at a molecular level and you can't film at a level like that.

Q: This movie covers many different places. By watching on the big screen I could really understand the whole picture - from the, as you said, molecular level to shots showing the globe. Could you explain your intention?

KM: I think [of] the film as an autobiography of all of us because we are all made up water. Of course, for most of the people [living] where I live, this [the water in the film] is the water they drink. It's important to be able see it on every scale - from a molecular [level] to space. Because we all live in a hydrosphere, a big envelope of water that is moving constantly. The smallest molecule can change the way your body works but it is all part of a vast system.

Q: The narration was done sometimes by men and women without their face being shown. Sometimes we don't know who they are. Was that your intention?

KM: There are lots of people that talk through the film. Sometimes we see them, but mostly we don't. There are scientists, environmentalists, sometimes people who just live around the water, which is difficult sometimes for people [filmgoers]. But the reason I did it is, two reasons, one because the water is the character really, the hero, and these people are commenting all the time on the water. And the story is a collective story - it's everyone's story. So all these voices come together just like all the drops come together to make the water these voices all come together to tell the collective story of the water.

Q: The music was very vivid in this film. Japanese subtitles were included for the lyrics. What is your opinion of the music?

KM: Mostly in a documentary like this you don't use this kind of music. You don't usually use lyrics. These are all pop tunes. Most of these are independent Canadian and American musicians. I used them for a couple of reasons, one because I wanted to have different flavors of music, because the movie is like a road trip. So the music is like the kind of music you'd have on a road trip, where it's pop songs and as you go along [you'd listen to] different kinds of flavors of tunes. And because we wanted it to appeal to young people and to have something different that would kind of shake them up a little bit, instead of just atmospheric music.

Q: There was a scene where people with nets are in a boat catching flying fish. Can you describe that scene?

KM: That's a very strange thing. They call it a "redneck fishing derby." A redneck is hard to explain. It's an American term for rough, working-class people. Those fish are a kind of fish that if a boat goes by they'll jump out of the water and people will get hit. One guy [in the film] says they'll [the passengers] get their teeth knocked out. Some people get knocked out of boats. They are really ravenous – they eat a lot. They accidentally got into that waterway near Chicago. Now there is a lot of concern they'll get into the Great Lakes because they reproduce rapidly and eat a lot of food. They'll eat out the other fish that live there. They are a strange phenomenon, those fish.

Q: What's the name of the competition again?

KM: They call it a redneck fishing derby because they catch the fish just by stirring up the water. They don't eat them. They destroy them. It's a waste, really, these fish, but Americans won’t eat them.

Q: They are trying to be number one by taking the most fish?

KM: They are just trying to destroy them.

Q: Did you want to try it?

KM: It looks like fun. But we just filmed it.

Q: Regarding drinking tap water or mineral water, can you describe the situation in Canada?

KM: Many people drink bottled water. Twenty years ago bottled water didn't exist in Canada. And then when people started to fear the water was polluted they started to drink bottled water. Now, there's a strong political movement against bottled water for a couple of reasons, one because it depletes the water from the groundwater, which is where it is taken from. Also because people realize, as they say in the film, it's just tap water put into bottles. Also there is concern about plastic in the bottles. The Canadian Government has just outlawed a kind plastic used in these bottles because it's toxic itself. So now there's a movement against using bottled water.

Q: Do you have any questions for the audience regarding water issues in Japan?

KM: I suppose. One thing I am curious about is whether the film makes sense for the audience. I don't know whether these kinds of problems exist here or not, whether people understood all these different things, like the pollution or the sewage or the invasive species. Do you have these problems in your fresh water lakes here?

Audience member: In this film, you are kind of stressing the role of humans. But I think maybe the lakes weren't on the Earth many years ago. So maybe it is natural for them to fade away or dry up [as easily as they appeared]. I think humans need not do anything. What is your opinion?

KM: He's talking about the water evaporating?

Audience member: If humans weren't here on Earth, the lakes could disappear on their own by drying up. What is your opinion?

KM: Well, maybe that's true. The scientists say that all the water on Earth has always been here. But sometimes it's been more fresh water or less, more in the oceans or less. The continents themselves have been together and then apart. So it's true – there's a process of transformation going on. Personally, I think, in the Great Lakes anyway, the water level has always had cycles – it's always gone up and down. But now instead of going like this [KM moves hand up and down] it is going like this [KM drops hand down]. It's consistently dropping. I think man-made climate change is real and when they [world nations] met 20 years ago, or whatever it was [1997], in Kyoto the scientists of the world thought it was real too. I am not a scientist but I take them at their word. The other problems, poison in water, we can’t blame anybody but ourselves for those.

Audience member: It's not right to think that only humans are affecting the lakes. It is one factor but there are other animals too impacting nature as well.

KM: It may be true. [There are] other animals of course. We're all animals. Other animals do affect the water. I don't know. I can only say what most of the scientists tell me. I am curious to know, there's a scientist here, Matsumoto, or something like that [Masaru Emoto]. He's a Japanese scientist. He believes that you can project emotions onto water. If you speak with anger around water you'll affect the way the crystals form and so on. Is that commonly known, that research, here? Do people know about that?

[Audience members indicate they have knowledge of the concept.]

Many people are skeptical of that. I don't know. But I would say that, whether it's problems like climate change or water evaporating, whether it's our fault or whether it’s some kind of natural process, it's only wise and right for us to treat everything with respect. When we have mass societies, many people consuming water, big factories that create a lot of pollution, it's difficult to maintain respect towards the rest of the world because it's hard to control those large forces. So I think if we are smart enough to be able to create these big systems we have to be smart enough to make the systems operate in a respectful way towards the rest of the world, not only the water and the air but all the creatures that depend on it.

Q: There are probably a lot of people who are against this film and others who are in favor of it. But maybe to think about this film is the most important thing. As a final question, what projects are you working on next?

KM: I have two projects I'm working on. Right now, I'm writing both of them and trying to raise money. One is a film like this [“Waterlife”], about the Boreal Forest, which is the big forest that wraps all around the north [of Canada]. I think maybe [it] barely touches northern Japan. The other is a documentary that will live only on the internet. It's an interactive documentary, and it's about nuclear weapons, which is something that I've worked on, on and off, for about 30 years to raise awareness, obviously a subject that would have resonance here. But many people aren’t aware that there are all kinds of nuclear weapons in the world. So we are working on a project to try to raise awareness about that.

Q: We are looking forward to seeing your next projects here at the Tokyo International Film Festival in the future.

KM: I hope so too. Thank you again so much for having me here, a great honor.

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)