An Irvine filmmaker's documentary about water rights becomes an arsenal in grassroots efforts to battle water privatization.
The Blue Gold: World Water Wars site has a
wealth of information on how to protect your
watershed. Go to the tab titled “Action Plan”
online. To view the film, download it from
iTunes, Amazon on demand or Netflix, or buy
it on PBS's website.
bluegold-worldwaterwars.com :: shoppbs.org
Four months ago, the residents of Marion, a city in Indiana with a population of about 31,320, faced a decision that would make them a member of an unusual community of cities and towns across the world linked by one of the most powerful resources on earth: water.
The city council was considering selling Marion’s utilities – water and sewage – to private firms, a move that could potentially bring millions in revenue to the city.
But a handful of residents who didn’t want their tap water supply owned by a company started to look into the impact of privatizating water in neighboring cities such as Fort Wayne, in other parts of the U.S. and around the world. They began a grassroots movement to assert their water rights.
One of those residents, Tiffany Tracy, a 27-year old barber, created a Facebook site called “Say NO to Privatizing Marion Utilities,” where people shared information they gathered. It was on that site that members became aware of a documentary on water rights titled Blue Gold: World Water Wars.
The film was created by Sam Bozzo, an independent filmmaker in Orange County.
Michelle Kinsey Osborne, who has lived in Marion all her life and works for the water department, contacted Bozzo through his Blue Gold site on Facebook to seek his advice so she could strengthen efforts in Marion to fight water privatization. “I thought that if people could see Sam’s movie, they would be upset and hurt just as I was that our water rights could be compromised,” Kinsey Osborne says. “I just wanted them to feel the way I did.”
On June 21, Bozzo gave Osborne permission to screen the documentary for free. Flyers circulated all over Marion about the screening, and on July 19 and July 21, residents, including three city council members, came to the Marion Public Library to watch Bozzo’s documentary. Little did they know that the documentary almost did not get made.
As indie filmmakers go, Bozzo is about as un-Hollywood as it gets and comes across as humble, almost to a fault. He is the kind of guy who walks with his seven-year-old son to school almost every morning and hangs out in the fringes of the students’ assembly area until the teacher comes to fetch the kids at 8:15 a.m.
That’s where my husband and I met him a year ago – while waiting for our kids to go into their first-grade class. Not once in the first few months of chatting with him in the early mornings did Bozzo bring up what he did for a living or what he had accomplished. And I never got around to asking him.
One day, my husband said, “Did you know that Sam is an independent filmmaker?”
I became curious and looked up Bozzo’s filmography. I found that Blue Gold had won the best documentary award at the Newport Beach Film Festival in 2009, and at least five other notable awards elsewhere. And despite his racking up recognition at film festivals, hardly anything had been written on his film and him, even in Orange County.
Bozzo and his company, Purple Turtle Films, were flying way under the radar – though not on purpose. Before releasing Blue Gold, he had completed three short films and was a Top 10 Project Greenlight Director selected by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.
Eventually, Bozzo and I began talking about his documentary.
The choice to make Blue Gold was not one he had planned for his film career. “In the science-fiction film The Man Who Fell to Earth, David Bowie famously portrayed an alien from a planet running out of water [and] he left,” Bozzo says. “However, we on planet Earth cannot [leave ours]. Ironically, it was while researching and writing a sequel to that film – in which we imagined a futuristic Earth itself running out of water – that my producer Si Litvinoff found the book Blue Gold: The Battle Against Corporate Theft of the World’s Water [by Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke]. I was horrified to discover that what was happening on our planet now was worse than what we were dreaming up for science fiction. I felt it important enough news to put down the script and go make a documentary first.”
It may have very well been Bozzo’s naiveté about documentary filmmaking that enabled him to pursue the project. “I had never made a documentary,” he says. “I only have a few documentaries in my DVD collection. I was not a journalist or an activist. I was simply an independent filmmaker who had a desire to make films and a digital video camera won from Kevin Spacey’s short film contest. In hindsight, it was good I didn’t know what I was getting into, or I would not have set out, most likely.”
Bozzo found a sponsor to fund the film, then purchased equipment, tickets and hotel rooms with his credit cards. And then, the unthinkable happened.
“The night before I was to set out shooting, the sponsor backed out,” he says. “I was about to wake my wife and tell her that I must quit and return my goods, but en route to our bedroom, our [then] three-year-old son, Ethan, stood in the hall, awakened from his sleep. He said, ‘I’m thirsty.’
“I fetched him a glass of water. I went to bed. For whatever reason, I did not tell my wife about the financial situation and decided to go forward filming without funding. As people found out the risk I was taking, a few grants were found to save the film.”
To capture the stories involving access to water, Bozzo traveled to numerous cities and towns around the world, including Cocachamba, the site of the historic water rights riots in Bolivia in April 2000, when masses of people took to the streets protesting privatization, eventually forcing San Francisco-based engineering giant Bechtel out of their country. He went to Big Rapids, Michigan, where water conservation advocates battled Nestle Waters North America, bottlers of Ice Mountain water, until as recently as last year.
“While traveling, I quickly realized that when I wrote screenplays, I only had to research facts from a distance,” Bozzo says. “However, to document these horrors on film, to report a real story, I had to go straight to the source. He says he bribed Mexican guards so he could shoot raw sewage irrigating farmlands in a 20-minute window, and investigated the assassination of another documentary filmmaker trying to save Kenyan water from corporate rose plantations, and traveled deep into Africa, where women fetch water from miles away.
“Because I was self-funding the film, I did not have a crew,” he says. “It was only myself and a camera traveling to dangerous places.” With little money left for bribing authorities to get passage at checkpoints in the rural areas of Kenya, Bozzo once ducked at a police checkout, only to have his guides scream at him to get up. “They explained that if the police saw me duck, [they] would assume I was being kidnapped by the drivers and would gun down everyone in the car, including me,” he says.
Of the people Bozzo met along the way and featured in his movie, three have left him with the most profound and lasting imprints. “Maude Barlow is arguably the Queen Water Warrior,” he says. “Her passion and persistence in fighting for the public right to water is inspiring, but the lesson I love most from her is her mother’s philosophy: ‘Serious people have serious enemies.’
“Vandana Shiva really made an impression. She is so very focused and convincing in her every word and action. She wrote a book called Water Wars and has done so much research on water conflict even when many in power have tried to dismiss the ‘theory’ of water wars completely.”
And then there’s Ryan Hreljac, who was only seven in 1999 when he found the idea of people having to walk far just get water in Third World countries so mind-boggling and unacceptable that he raised enough money to build a well at Angolo Primary School in northern Uganda and subsequently established Ryan’s Well Foundation. The well in Uganda continues to serve the community.
“Ryan is the essence of being part of the solution instead of part of the problem,” Bozzo says. “My favorite quote of his in the film is ‘I think I was too young to be nervous,’ which really says a lot. As a seven-year-old, he simply saw people were dying due to lack of clean water and wanted to help them. He didn’t let anything an adult might allow to get in the way. He is one of the most positive human forces I ever met and I learned a lot from meeting him.”
Although the film Blue Gold was based on the book of a similar title, released in 2002 by Canadian company Stoddart Publishing, it’s more of a partner to than a film version of the book. “I kept the book sections in place,” Bozzo says. “Outside of that, though, the stories in the 2002 book were starting points for my investigations, which took on a life of their own. The Bolivia and Michigan stories, and the science are similar in both the book and film, but really the two are completely different after that, as I interviewed in 2006-2007 and found dozens of human tragedies I included in the film. I took extra effort to find solutions for every major problem presented for the last section, as I do not believe in just scaring people without proposing a path to fix things.”
Because the film enlightens without plaguing viewers with academic lectures, and provides steps for taking action, it’s not surprising that people such as Kinsey Osborne turn to Bozzo for help and counsel after watching Blue Gold.
“As fans grow on Facebook and with my newsletter, I find myself in the strange situation of going from a filmmaker looking to make his first feature film, to a water ‘expert’ whom people turn to for advice,” Bozzo says. “The film has helped win two privatization fights in the US. Both in Trenton, New Jersey and Marion, Indiana, fans contacted me for help in convincing their local government to vote against privatizing, and they held screenings of the film.”
Until she viewed the film, Tracy says the most she knew about the impact of privatization was the risk of water rate hikes. What she says she realized post-viewing was that the water rights battles were much greater and much more horrendous in other parts of the world.
Water, Water Everywhere
There are other films that focus on the need to protect sources of fresh water and to uphold people’s right to water. And water, it seems, has moved from the edges of environmental issues to the forefront, with National Geographic launching the Blue Water Project in 2007 and more recently featuring “Expedition Blue Planet 2010: North America,” the project of Alexandra Cousteau, who recently held a screening of her series at the Oakley headquarters in Foothill Ranch.
But for people such as Kinsey Osborne, Blue Gold stands out, for it has something intangible that achieves more than just opening eyes. To her, the film's portrayal of humanity and its call to specific action inspire and galvanize. “Blue Gold was power-packed with knowledge for our community not just to stop the sale, but gave us the inspiration to keep fighting for our human rights. If there is a formula for stopping privatization of water and sewer plants in a community, Blue Gold is definitely part of that equation,” Kinsey Osborne wrote on the movie’s Facebook site.
Several days after the two screenings of Blue Gold in Marion in late July, the city council took a poll to determine whether to go forward with plans to consider privatization. Its members decided against continuing such plans. “I honestly think that the movie saved our city,” Tracy says. “Without it, I don’t think we would have had the impact that we had.”
The week after, a different but no less poignant decision – one on an international scale – took place roughly 700 miles from Marion. In New York, the United Nations General Assembly voted 122 to 0 – with 41 abstentions – in favor of adopting a resolution recognizing access to clean water and sanitation as a human right. The Assembly expressed concern that some 884 million people were without access to safe drinking water, and more than 2.6 billion lacked access to basic sanitation, according to a U.N. report. It also expressed alarm that 1.5 million children under five years old died each year as a result of water - and sanitation-related diseases, acknowledging that safe, clean drinking water and sanitation were integral to the realization of all human rights.
The vote was a powerful juncture in the world water wars. The U.S. was one of the 41 countries that abstained from voting.