An individual’s effort to make the world a better place can often feel like a drop in the ocean. Not in this case. Hell or Clean Water reminds audiences that one drop can do a world of good. The film offers a refreshing report on Newfoundland diver Shawn Bath. He’s an environmental steward and a hero; a true David confronting the Goliath of humankind’s devastating influence on the Earth’s ecosystems.
Hell or Clean Water profiles Bath and his efforts to clean the coasts of Newfoundland one decaying rubber tire at a time. His mission through Clean Harbours Initiative (CHI) is to comb the waterbeds of the coastlines and remove refuse from the ocean floor. Director Cody Westman captures Bath’s selfless efforts as he mounts this dedicated volunteer-run do-it-yourself enterprise. Witness Bath and his crew of eco warriors hauling tire after tire from the ocean and it’s hard not to be awed by their dedication. It’s equally difficult to avoid being mortified at the senselessness of human activity that allows so many tires, boat batteries, plastic bottles, and toxic crap to be tossed into Earth’s waters.
The doc isn’t all pretty as it observes the challenges of making such an enterprise sustainable. CHI’s operations survive on little more than a wing and prayer, along with four maxed-out credit cards. Bath’s supportive but visibly beleaguered partner shares her concerns about supporting the family while he spends their savings on a fight that is not his alone. Bath disagrees. He shares how he waited for someone else to come along and do the job. That obviously never happened and he teaches his fellow Newfoundlanders to avoid making the same mistakes their parents did.
The film’s DP Troy Maher shoots the Newfoundland coastline just beautifully as Bath puts activism into action. The striking images emphasize that Canada’s waters are worth the fight. The doc also matches the sunny skylines with an upbeat soundtrack of Canadian rock. Featuring bands like Sam Roberts, Matt Mays, and The Town Spirit, Hell or Clean Water evokes a sense of community spirit as Bath rids the coast of junk. (On the topic of junk, though, this film produced in association with CBC’s documentary Channel production is a little too gung-ho for the CBC with an excess of materials from Canada’s public broadcaster.)
Hell or Clean Water finds much of its drama not in the clean-up operations but in the logistics of keeping the enterprise afloat. Bath enlists the help of an activist from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) who is eager to help with his green campaign while shifting her organization to becoming more proactive than reactive. However, IFAW’s long history of maligning the commercial seal hunt remains a thorny issue with many of the old stock Newfoundlanders. The memory of the devastating end to commercial cod fishing also haunts the seaside towns that saw thousands of livelihoods upturned. However, the doc makes clear that commercial fishing plays its part in Bath’s endeavour. Much of the refuse he collects from the ocean is “ghost waste” – i.e. discarded junk to which nobody lays claim, like nets, bottles, tires, or engine parts that landed at the bottom of the ocean through either negligence or incidental human behaviour.
The film also captures true drama in the quagmire of federal grants and funding. Bath’s operation barely brings in money through GoFundMe and Facebook, so when the government pledges $8.3 million to clean up the water—and articles citing the fund’s creation use CHI as an example of the work that the project aims to support—Bath thinks his problems are solved. Anyone who has ever filed an application for a government grant will appreciate the film’s irony.
As Hell or Clean Water observes Bath while he removes tens of thousands of tires from the ocean, the film makes a compelling argument that one determined person can indeed make the world a better place. Larger, collective action is obviously needed, but this upbeat doc portrait should inspire helping hands to join the fight.
Hell or Clean Water premieres at Hot Docs 2021.