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Photo: Oscilloscope Pictures

Directed by
Irena Salina
Produced by
Steven Starr
Released by
Oscilloscope Pictures
USA. 84 min. Not Rated

According to Flow, Soylent Green is now fact, not futuristic fiction (minus the cannibalism). This documentary is a nonfiction spoiler of the climactic revelation of that 1973 dystopian visionby 2022, the exploding human population has used up all of the fresh water, which is controlled by a huge multinational corporation.

Flow is mostly like an illustrated public radio program. Passionate activists and scientists talk in paragraphs as the evidence supporting their charges rolls by in photographs, microscopic close-ups, animation, and lots of footage of sad children around the world. Alarming statistics scroll across the screen—such as potable water constitutes less than one per cent of our planet’s total water supply—with long stretches devoted to the spiritual importance of water, particularly the Ganges River. A funny bit by Penn Jillette, from his debunking TV show, and Orson Welles eerily warning about corruption from The Third Man interrupt the solemnity.

Director Irena Salina at first seems to be traveling five continents to just confirm the threats to water that Rachel Carson warned about back in the 1950s and 1960s. Flow becomes the most fresh and informative when it ties together the far-flung issues of supply, cost, quality, and extraction in Bolivia, India, Michigan, and South Africa, with the rise of the giant water companies that are rivaling the oil companies in size and influence as they seek to control “blue gold.” (Salina avoids the issue of competition for water that has tangled politics in the Middle East almost more than oil.) The film’s targets are mainly two French conglomerates, Vivendi and Suez, that are presented as evil as any villain in a graphic novel, and the World Bank and International Monetary Fund as their henchmen.

Flow gushes when it demonstrates how creative engineers, like Shri Rajendra Singh, "the waterman of India,” have developed low-tech, less expensive solutions for harvesting rainfall and mining underground water for grassroots community control in low-density towns. Their achievements, though, get muddied among the dangers of the downside of the chemically-induced Green Revolution’s aquifer pollution. 

The alarms about enormous dams such as China’s Three Gorges get repeated, as in several documentaries such as Up the Yangtze and Manufactured Landscapes. Only at the end is there grudging acknowledgment of the benefits brought by the foresight of public health innovators at the turn of the last century who advocated for dams and reservoirs to provide sanitary water and electricity, as celebrated in Pare Lorentz’s The River (1938).

The activists here emphasize that fresh water is a public necessity that should not be privatized. Though the economics are overly optimistic, the interviewees all over the world insist that countries should receive grants to provide the required infrastructure to bring clean water to happy children and not get drowned in debt. Nora Lee Mandel
September 12, 2008



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