There’s Something in the Water
(Canada, 73 min.)
Dir. Ellen Page, Ian Daniel
Programme: TIFF Docs (World Premiere)
It’s not unusual for stars to lend their celebrity to worthy causes. Just look at TIFF eco docs such as And We Go Green with Leonardo DiCaprio and Sanctuary with Javier Bardem. While star status risks overwhelming a film, it can provide invaluable benefits, like exposure and a reliable screen presence to engage the audience.
Putting the camera in the hands of the star, however, is a different story. Ellen Page does double duty as guide and director with There’s Something in the Water, and she’s great as a participant and host. Page joins her Gaycation co-creator Ian Daniel in directing There’s Something in the Water and the doc takes them on a road through the star’s native Halifax. Her connection to the areas they visit obviously helps gain the trust of the participants and her personal element illustrates how Canada is not exactly as nice and clean as it presents itself to be.
But as a director, she’s less successful. The project could just as easily have been a podcast as the team captures lo-fi interviews and rough-and-tumble verité style footage accompanied by tinkly piano music. Audiences need to stick with it to force the much-needed conversation it inspires. Issues of pacing, focus, and argumentation are also evident despite much of the compelling testimony and eye-opening footage on display. While there is no denying her passion and convictions, the delivery doesn’t quite match the film’s sincere intentions.
This film however, is also a case where activism trumps art. There’s Something in the Water tackles the issue of “environmental racism” argued by Ingrid Waldron’s bold book of the same name, which draws correlations between sites of toxic waste and areas predominantly populated by people of colour. The doc looks at three parts of Halifax—and perhaps might have worked better as a trio of episodes for CBC Docs or as a web-series—as Page and Daniel give voice to Nova Scotians fighting for action.
Louise, a compelling figure in Shelburne, takes the team on a tour of the area turned toxic by a former dump. She outlines instances of cancer that have increased in her community, and recalls with embarrassment the experience of growing up in fumes that smelled so bad her schoolteacher would question her hygiene. In A’se’k, aka Boat Harbour, Page and Daniel meet Michelle, an Indigenous woman who reflects upon the guilt her grandfather carried after allowing a pulp and paper mill to develop on their sacred land. Both the land and the surrounding water are now toxic, and the doc witnesses a spineless fight between governments and corporations as the elected leaders of Nova Scotia passively allow the mill to delay alternatives to its polluting methods. The third (somewhat abbreviated) sequence takes audiences to a riverbed where Mi’gmaq activists known as “grandmothers” enact their treaty rights to protect the land and water.
Angry eco docs like There’s Something in the Water can be alienating, but it’s hard to watch the film without feeling riled up. Each case makes clear the currents of discrimination. Pollution and its effects are out of sight and out of mind for the white majority in locations that Page and Daniel visit. The three worthwhile stories don’t form a cohesive whole, though, but the images, stories, and passion could fuel further activism as audiences wonder about the unseen communities that feel the impact of their everyday actions.