Hollywood Dives In

The United States boasts some of the safest drinking water on the planet,
and some of the toughest standards. But research suggests it might not be
a great idea to take water safety for granted. Aging infrastructure and other
sources of waste pose threats, but there are options for ensuring
that we’re drinking quality water.


By Allan Richter

From July, 2008


   Three extreme athletes go up against a parched African desert. One of America’s majestic rivers, its water supply in danger of being overtapped, gets the 3D treatment. An odd cast of characters inhabits a once-thriving California oasis. A wealthy rapper navigates African slums.

These plot lines may sound like the stuff of Hollywood fiction, but Academy-Award winning stars like Matt Damon and Robert Redford have attached their names, voices and production credits to documentaries that spotlight environmental water issues. And Hollywood is turning these films out about as quickly as clean water sources are becoming scarce.

There is plenty of material: Here and abroad, farmers are leaving their desiccated properties, wells and rivers are drying up and large swaths of land are besieged with drought.
   These four upcoming and recent documentaries dissect those issues. They each have heartrending elements—extreme poverty, foremost. But they are also laced with the optimistic idea that solutions are within reach.

Running the Sahara
   Running the Sahara isn’t an environmental film but a story about human nature, exploration and fortitude. Endurance athletes Charlie Engle and Ray Zahab were running an Amazon marathon when they wondered what it would be like to run more than 4,000 miles across the brutal Sahara Desert. Two years later, in late 2006, Engle, Zahab and fellow endurance athlete Kevin Lin set out to traverse the Sahara across six North African countries on foot, an unprecedented challenge.

Along the way, the team adapts to the elements and the physical and political landscape while fighting their own better judgment and limitations. The suspense of finding out who runs the full distance—the goal is to bring at least one runner across the finish line—makes for gripping storytelling. Aided by spare narration from executive producer and Oscar-winner Matt Damon, Academy Award-winning director James Moll brings to life the runners, the stark backdrop and African culture with equal billing.

Water is only a supporting character, but an important one. In one of the film’s most moving moments, the runners encounter a 7-year-old boy alone in the Mali desert. With little more than the clothes he wears, the boy waits in the spot for days for his father’s return from a search for fresh water.

 In contrast, the runners come upon the Ténéré oasis village in Agadez, Niger, at the Sahara’s geographical center. An African children’s choir provides an upbeat soundtrack behind children as they run through the village, but the oasis is overcrowded with nomads drawn to its life-giving liquid resource. Engle learned of the water crisis on a scouting trip to Agadez a year before the run. “This town shouldn’t have 50,000 people in it, and there were 500,000 people there,” Engle tells Energy Times. “That was a direct result of the nomadic people not having clean water or any water, frankly, in their home areas.”

In Running the Sahara, we learn that nomads value their freedom of movement so much that they believe houses, as Damon narrates, are “the graves of the living.”

The athletes’ grueling run begins by the Atlantic shores of Senegal in West Africa and ends in Eqypt’s Suez. Those bookends, Moll tells Energy Times, are a “poetic coincidence. Water ended up becoming such a strong theme in the film, but the fact is the intent was to run coast to coast. When the runners came across the small boy in the desert, it really began to resonate with them on an emotional level.”

 From the runners’ encounter with the Sahara’s arid landscape sprang The H20 Africa Foundation (www.h20Africa.org), co-founded by Damon, Engle and others. The organization is bringing to the continent wells and the infrastructure for its people to maintain them.
   Africa’s water crisis is killing many. But the runners’ feat turns the seemingly impossible into the plausible.

Running the Sahara is scheduled for a fall theatrical release.

Diary of Jay-Z: Water for Life
   Diary of Jay-Z begins with a laundry list of statistics but quickly puts faces on them. The documentary, produced with MTV and the United Nations, follows the rap mogul through African slums during his 2006 music tour of the continent.

Onscreen, Jay-Z is seeing many of the ugly realities for the first time, which quickly shifts his role from the film’s central character to the viewer’s partner in discovery. And they are horrifying discoveries. We walk through the mud streets with the rapper to encounter a schoolhouse with no toilet.

In Luanda, Angola, Jay-Z meets Bela, no more than 12 or 13. She wakes at 6 a.m. to spend the next four hours retrieving water from a spigot more than a half-mile away. When the rapper carries the full container on the first of two such daily trips for Bela, he can barely lift it more than 10 feet. The two trips don’t come close to bringing the family of six the daily recommended allotment. After purifying the water with chlorine tablets, Bela walks past a trail of raw sewage en route to school.

In hip-hop terms, the “hood” is about as poor a neighborhood as you can get; Jay-Z’s African tour forces him to redefine its location. “We’re not from the hood, by no means,” he exclaims. “Not even close. This is the bottom.”

Yet a few bright spots of hope emerge through the diarrhea, worms and other water-related afflictions that run rampant in these communities. In an innovative approach in Durban, a village is equipped with a “play pump”—a merry-go-round that pumps water to a holding tank from which it can be drawn. Diary of Jay-Z puts a lens on the bleakest of living conditions but also shows how far a little effort and money can go.

Diary of Jay-Z: Water for Life can be viewed at www.archive.org/details/Unworks-MTV-WFL.

Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea

   Filmmakers Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer like to tell stories of “outsiders,” so they set out to document the ragtag group of residents around California’s Salton Sea.

Set south of Palm Springs, the 35-mile long body of water was created when the Colorado River overran a shoddily built dam early last century. During the 50s and 60s it became a hot vacation spot, attracting boaters and entertainers like Frank Sinatra. The area was later abandoned after a series of weather disasters and fish die-offs caused by its high salinity.

Plagues & Pleasures of the Salton Sea captures the area’s quirky troupe of residents in all their glory. Among these are an aging roadside nudist and a religious artist who builds a straw-and-mud mountain to draw tourists. Aptly, offbeat filmmaker John Waters narrates.

The Salton Sea residents are not just strange ducks encircled by dilapidated resorts and braving 100-degree nights for nothing—they are idealists who have found a commune where individualism and hope thrives.

Returning the Salton Sea to health would take a guaranteed inflow of water and desalinization. But Los Angeles’ population growth competes for its water.

Opportunities to revive the Salton Sea seem to have slipped by as quickly as they have come. But the shoreline residents aren’t quitting, and that may be Plagues & Pleasures’ most important environmental message.

Visit www.plaguesandpleasures.com to order a DVD.


RFK Jr. Reflects on the Colorado River and His Dad
   Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s visit to the Colorado River during the September 2006 filming of Grand Canyon Adventure: River at Risk was his first since his father took him on rafting trips more than four decades ago when he was a boy of 12. Last month, just after Kennedy marked the 40th anniversary of his father’s assassination, the environmentalist spoke with Energy Times about the changes he’s seen in the river and the lessons his father imbued in him and his siblings on Western river runs.

 “The structure of the river has changed dramatically,”Kennedy says. “There used to be these broad sandbars that were kind of a defining feature of the Grand Canyon. They were covered with driftwood which provided a habitat for many kinds of mammals, beaver, otter. We had eight different species of fish, four of which are now extinct and four of which are going extinct.”

Sandbars that are left, Kennedy says, are covered with thick brush and willow, “which is not supposed to be there because it’s supposed to be flushed out with the spring flood. And those were the big sandbars where the Indians made their fields. It was very fertile soil and it was clear of brush and weeds so they could grow their crops down there. So we’re losing touch with our history.”

Among the culprits contributing to the Colorado’s loss of water are corporate interests and dams along the river that are creating huge lakes from which water—“enough to supply entire cities,” Kennedy says—is baking off in the sun. Kennedy wants to see more water from the Colorado stored in the Grand Canyon’s natural aquifers, restoring flood cycles and ecosystems.

 Kennedy says his father “tried to inculcate us with this idea that the public owned these resources and they were part of our history and a critical part of the development of American democracy. Frederick Jackson Turner said that American democracy came out of the wilderness. Without the wilderness and the woodlands, we wouldn’t have evolved the political institutions that define us as a people. My father wanted to show us that there were moral questions here. There’s questions that go directly to the pliability of our democracy.”

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