Just in case you're not already freaked out enough about climate change, oil prices and that general, exhausted sort of end-of-the-world vibe that's been in the air for the past couple years, Irena Salina's outraged, deeply unsettling documentary Flow investigates another underreported impending disaster: the world water crisis.
Going a bit overboard at first with the new-agey platitudes and enough lush close-ups of trickling streams to make Terrence Malick green with envy, Salina starts out taking a macro view, presenting the water cycle as something akin to a circulatory system for all life on Earth. Then she gets out a magnifying glass, and things start getting scary.
It's never pleasant to look closely at what you're actually consuming, and the early segments of Flow are sure to send you scrambling home from the theater to change that expired Brita filter in the fridge. There are more than 116,000 manmade chemicals floating around our allegedly clean H2O supply, with one scientist even pointing to the recent discovery of Prozac in Texas tap water. (Come to think of it, that actually explains a lot about the Lone Star State.)
Of course, this wouldn't be a modern doc without at least one or two jaw-dropping examples of cronyism and incompetence from the Bush administration, so you'll be pleased to learn that our Environmental Protection Agency currently doesn't bother regulating 51 known water contaminants. My personal favorite is the popular pesticide atrazine, an endocrine disruptor so toxic it causes prostate cancer in humans and turns boy frogs into girl frogs; the EPA's okay with us spraying 76 million pounds of this junk all over the countryside every year. The usage of atrazine is banned in the European Union, which provides Salina her best ironic punch line, since that's where we buy it from.
But don't assume buying bottled water will keep you any safer. It turns out that stuff is even less regulated than what comes out of your taps (and sometimes that's exactly what you're buying). The UN estimates the entire world could be provided with clean drinking water for about a third of what we're spending per year on bottles of Dasani and Poland Spring. But alas, this is a big business, with profit margins ranking alongside electricity and oil, so naturally the sharks have already moved in to try and privatize it all.
Salina's concerned most with the concept of ownership. Like air or sunshine, water is a transient substance. But don't tell that to the smiling suits in companies like Suez and Vivendi. The privatization of water supplies in developing countries is a complicated scam that's been going on for years, and should probably be the subject of its own feature. Flow doesn't spend nearly enough time tracing it back through the World Bank and the IMF, but we're at least treated to some vinegary footage of well-heeled execs snarling at poor people. (The 2000 Cochabamba Water Wars, in which citizens took to the streets and eventually drove out the profiteers, make a too-brief appearance here, as they did in the 2005 doc The Corporation.)
But this question of possession isn't just a problem for other countries. Flow's most compelling segment chronicles the members of a Michigan farming community who tried to fight back after Nestl� plunked down a bottling plant in their backyards. Appalled to find their streams transformed into mudflats and sudden sinkholes all over town, local activists waged a petition protest that was met with intimidating visits from thuggish private eyes. Their initial legal victories are currently being ground down in the appeals process.
Flow too often gets bogged down with lyrical dithering. Salina's a much better muckraker than she is a poet. But despite all the touchy-feely frou-frou on the margins, the movie raises some uneasy questions about commodification of natural resources and the public good that are worth thinking about, even after you've changed that old Brita filter.