Reflection: a walk with water


A world without water is dry and dusty.

(2021) Documentary (Reflection Film LLC) Emmett Brennan, Kathy Bancroft, Connor Jones, Rhamis Kent, Gigi Coyle, Ariel Greenwood, Andy Lipkis, Raymond Hunter, Kate Bunney, Alan Babcock, Brock Dolman, Geoff Dalglish, Ben Holgate, Paul Kaiser, Penny Livingston. Directed by Emmett Brennan

 

Water is the world’s most precious resource. Without it, all life would be impossible. Without it, humans would auickly – within a matter of days – become extinct. Water helps provide oxygen for the planet through evaporation but also by watering plants which provide it. Water grows our food which we need to live. Water keeps us hydrated, which our bodies must have to survive. In short, water is life.

In 1913, the city of Los Angeles built an aqueduct leading from the Owens Valley, nearly 250 miles away. The ambitious plan provided nearly four times the amount of water the city of Los Angeles needed at the time, but it proved to be a far-sighted plan as within seven years, the population of Los Angeles surpassed San Francisco to become the most populous city in California. Until recently, the Los Angeles aqueduct provided nearly 75% of the city’s water.

But there is a price to pay for everything. The Owens Lake shrunk dramatically, becoming a dry lakebed. Once a fertile agricultural region, the Owens Valley became little more than a desert (which, ironically, was what the San Fernando Valley had been before the aqueduct). The dust particulates in the lakebed proved to be a bigger problem, causing respiratory problems for the residents and carrying carcinogenic materials.

Environmentalist, activist and filmmaker Emmett Brannon wanted to call attention to the plight of the Owens Valley, but also to the effects of water mismanagement, which was leading to the epidemic of wildfires that have been plaguing Southern California over the last few years. He and a group of like-minded environmentalists decided to hike alongside the aqueduct to show the effects that the water theft had on the regions left behind.

The science is compelling. The presence of water creates a self-regenerating ecosystem in which water evaporates and creates rain, fog and mist which nourish the soil from which the water can then create rain, fog and mist and start the cycle once again. Without water, soil becomes denser, and actually becomes water-resistant. Of course, once the water is gone, so is the rain for the most part. Brennan and the scientists that he utilizes for the film then go on to suggest solutions.

A lot of time is spent bashing the city of Los Angeles, which is a bit childish and unnecessary. What’s done is done, and the city can’t very well cut off water on which millions of people depend on. Brennan and his team don’t seem to be very thrilled with the idea of irrigation either; the general feeling I got is that water should be left to do what nature intended it to do. I suspect the farmers in the region might not appreciate their solutions, nor the hundreds of millions who are fed from the crops that come out of California alone. I get the sense that there is an awful lot of New Age thought that went into the film; that has a tendency to sabotage the science that also went into it. Mantras and formulas don’t mix.

In that sense, this is a very Jekyll-and-Hyde kind of documentary. There is some useful information in it as well as some solutions that merit further study for a problem that is real and needs to be addressed. Unfortunately, I don’t think that the filmmaker looked as globally at the problem as he might have because I don’t get the sense he took into account the consequences of the changes he proposed to the lives of the people that would be affected by them. Just because a documentary addresses a problem that needs to be addressed doesn’t mean the solutions it proposes are viable.

REASONS TO SEE: Makes some salient points about the misuse of water.
REASONS TO AVOID: The science is diluted with a disturbing amount of psychobabble.
FAMILY VALUES: The film is suitable for all audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The cabin seen at the beginning of the film is Brennan’s residence and he built it himself.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Tribeca @ Home (June 16-23)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/13/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Flow
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Tigre Gente

Rebuilding Paradise


Paradise lost.

(2020) Documentary (National GeographicWoody Culleton, Matt Gates, Michelle John, Erin Brockovich-Ellis, Zach Boston, Brendan Burke, Justin Cox, Mike Ramsey, Ken Pinlok, Alejandro Saise, Kayla Cox, James Gallagher, Phil John, Mike Zucolillo, Melissa Schuster, Tammy Hillis, Zeke Lunder, Calli Jane DeAnda, Aaron Johnson, Carly Ingersoll, Tenille Gates. Directed by Ron Howard

 

We have become inured to disaster. Each one seems to be greeted with numb compassion; thoughts and prayers, and all that. We feel for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. We feel for the victims of the tornados that swept through Alabama. We feel for the victims of the explosion in Beirut which happened less than 24 hours ago as I write this. But we also feel numb, as if it’s just one more thing in the load of regret that we carry around with us like a backpack full of bricks.

Oscar-winning director Ron Howard is surely aware of this. As we cope with a deadly virus that has cost 160,000 lives (and rising), protests (sometimes violent) over racial injustice, an increasingly divided country that can’t even agree on whether we should wear masks during a pandemic, it feels like we have lost our ability to feel compassion or horror. All we feel is nothing.

This is a documentary that aims to change that. The first ten minutes are maybe the most terrifying ten minutes you’ll experience this year. We see the footage of the 2018 Camp Fire, which on November 8, 2018, fanned by Santa Ana winds, fueled by years of drought and years of a lack of forest clearing, went from being a small fire to travelling nine miles in a matter of hours, roaring through the town of Paradise, California like a pyroclastic cloud, leveling the town of 26,000 in a matter of hours and leaving 86 dead – the deadliest wildfire in the history of the California.

But what happens then? Howard isn’t interested so much in the disaster itself but in the aftermath. He follows several residents of Paradise – police officer Matt Gates, school board member Michelle John, and former mayor Woody Culleton (and the self-admitted former town drunk) – as they cope with the trauma, the loss of life, the loss of property, the feeling of rootlessness. Everything they knew and loved was gone. Of course, they want to rebuild.

But the nagging question is, should they? The conditions that created the Camp Fire aren’t going to go away anytime soon, and with climate change growing more and more of an issue, there is a very real chance that if they rebuild the town, it could burn once again. While the sparks that started the fire came from the nearly century-old equipment of Pacific Gas and Electric, a town meeting in which Aaron Johnson, an executive for the power company, maintains that while PG&E intends to “do right” by the town, it will take a minimum of five years to convert the power lines to underground lines. With the rains that normally soak the woods of the town, located about 85 miles north of Sacramento in Butte County, not arriving until after Thanksgiving (after previously arriving before Halloween), it’s a very scary situation for those who call Paradise home.

One of the things the documentary does well is show how interdependent a town is. Michelle John tells us that if the kids all move away, there’s no point in reopening the schools; if the schools don’t open, there’s no reason for people to stay. It’s a Catch-22 that also exists for businesses and services as well.

The unassailable thing that we can’t get away from is that home is home; there’s something about a place that gets under our skin, that gives us a sense of belonging. This is particularly true of small towns, although big cities can have this as well. There are places where we don’t just want to live there; we want to die there too.

=Dealing with the bureaucracy that is FEMA is almost as traumatic as the fire itself. Getting the funds and permits to get homes rebuilt requires the residents to jump through hoops. Many of them can’t afford to move somewhere else even if they wanted to – and some really don’t want to, whether it’s due to an attachment to the life they once lived there, or because the place calls to them.

The three main subjects – John, Gates and Culleton – are all interesting. Gates is the kind of model police officer that give police forces a good name; he is dedicated to his community and heroic in evacuating his town, even as he notices his own home is burning. John works tirelessly for the kids that she serves, trying not only to get kids placed in area schools, but also to clear the area around the football field at the high school so that the senior class can hold their graduation ceremony. Culleton is the straight-shooter, who at 74 decides that relocation is out of the question; “Where the hell am I going to go?” he says crossly, when discussing the matter.

The movie is inspirational, and there are some moments – such as one where a tough man is reduced to tears when the rebuilding of his home begins. Family members discuss the last moments of loved ones who died in the fire, and a loving husband tells his wife to make sure she takes care of herself in her zeal to get things back to normal for her town.

The spirit of these townspeople is indominable; you can’t help but admire they’re strength. Many of the town’s residents will never return. Bringing the town back to what it was before is the work not of months and not even years but decades. Some critics sniped that the film doesn’t truly examine whether Paradise should be rebuilt but to be honest, who is anyone to tell a person where they should live? People live in tornado alley, on the coast where hurricanes land, in earthquake zones, near volcanos, and near rivers that flood. There are few places on the planet that are exempt from natural disasters. It’s what we do after them that define us as people.

REASONS TO SEE: Packs an emotional wallop. Uplifting in the truest sense of the word. The footage of the fire and the aftermath are breathtaking and sobering. Puts the people at the center of the story. Illustrates how interdependent a community is.
REASONS TO AVOID: In the stressful environment we live in currently, some might find it too much.
FAMILY VALUES: The footage of people escaping the fire may be too intense for the impressionable; there is also some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The year following the fire, the Paradise High School Bobcats football team went undefeated; virtually the entire town that remains would attend their home games.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinematic Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/5/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews, Metacritic: 70/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cajun Navy
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
Marley

The Biggest Little Farm


Farmer, farmer’s best friend and beautiful farm.

(2018) Documentary (NEONJohn Chester, Molly Chester, Alan York, Beauden Chester. Directed by John Chester

If you are someone who watches a lot of documentaries about farming and food production, you’ll be aware that small family farms are essentially endangered species, being pushed to the brink of extinction by factory farms that loads up their crops with pesticides and growth hormones and practices inhumane (to say the least) practices in regards to the livestock.

John Chester is a cinematographer who started out doing nature documentaries. His wife Molly is a chef, food blogger, cookbook author and advocate for healthy farm-to-table cuisine. The two lived in a cramped Santa Monica apartment but dreamed of farm life. They adopted a rescue dog, a big black Labrador-like guy named Todd. When the two would leave the apartment to go to work, the dog suffered from acute separation anxiety, barking non-stop to the point where the landlord finally asked them to get rid of the dog. Instead, the couple opted to get rid of apartment life. They decided to live their dream instead of just discussing it.

They purchased 200 acres near Moorpark, California – about an hour North of downtown L.A. in Ventura County. Not knowing much about farming, they took the sage advice of Alan York who preached the gospel of biodiversity, raising as many crops as possible instead of just a single one and relying on pesticides. The Chesters wanted to integrate flora and fauna, and York had the know-how to make it work.

The film – largely shot by Chester and directed by him – is a chronicle of the first seven years of their journey into Green Acres territory and all the challenges they faced, from predators such as coyotes and mountain lions attacking their chicken population, or pests like snails and various bugs eating the fruits of their labors (literally). In all instances the Chesters tried solutions that incorporated natural elements, like getting ladybugs for the insect pests and so on.

There are obstacles that don’t necessarily have easy and natural solutions, like a drought that has been proclaimed the worst in 1,200 years, or the destructive wildfires that have beset California the past couple of years. The fact that the climate is changing doesn’t seem to deter the very persistent Chester family; however, it must be said that farms like theirs is part of the solution to climate change.

One wouldn’t think that a farm would be an ideal location for nature photography but Chester certainly has an eye for it and some of the images are absolutely stunning. In fact, they are almost too stunning; sometimes we get so caught up in the beautiful images for the underlying message of biodiversity and ecological responsibility to register. What will certainly register is the personality of the various farm animals, starting with Todd the Rescue Dog on down to Millie the pig, Greasy the rooster and onward.

The farm does offer tours (we see one near the end of the film) and there is a URL at the end of the film for which you can follow the Farm where, as they say, the story continues. Those who don’t want to wait to see the film to check out the farm and their activities out can go here.

Watching this simple yet heartwarming film is going to get some viewers to long for a simpler life. Maybe you too will be motivated to start a farm of your own although watching this might convince you that the very prospect is nothing short of crazy. This was a big hit at the recent Florida Film Festival and will be making a run at the Enzian in the coming weeks. Keep an eye out for it; this is truly chicken soup for the soul.

REASONS TO SEE: The cinematography is absolutely extraordinary. Nature photography on the farm – also extraordinary. Makes one long for a simpler life. Very sweet and inspiring.
REASONS TO AVOID: Sometimes the message is lost in the beautiful pictures
FAMILY VALUES: There are some scenes of animal peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film debuted at the Toronto Film Festival last year.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/10/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews: Metacritic: 73/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: After Winter, Spring
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Charlie Says