By Charles Ellison | ecoWURD Managing Editor
At a screening of DuBois Ashong’s dreary short thriller ‘Where the Water Runs’ at the 2018 Black Star Film Festival in Philly, there was a sense that Black people probably need to see more of themselves in films like this.
Ashong’s depressing, but compellingly scripted near-dystopic illustration of a contemporary world with limited water is just that kind of flick to alarm its core audience into fear and, quite possibly, action. The mix of geography, social tensions, racial constructs and nakedly helpless characters is real enough: there’s increasingly heat-battered and urban Southern California faced with what we think is an unfixable water supply crisis … until blatant inequalities in water distribution are revealed.
Water no longer runs through faucets – depending on your neighborhood. It becomes a frighteningly rare and precious commodity, sold in excess quantity for greener lawns, high end restaurants and car washes in affluent White communities; but only available to poorer Black and Brown residents by “kiosks” and “stations” supplied by spottily scheduled water trucks.
It all looks real and very recent.
And rather than delve into macro-policy explanations as to why water main pressure is totally cut off in very Black South Central L.A. – versus constantly flowing paid-for water in wealthier hoods and suburbs – Ashong gets the audience audibly pissed. Movie-goers shook heads in hushed cursing at water delivery to the smug, cheddar-stocked White dude living in a mansion who receives weekly untold gallons of water delivery to keep his grass sharp while he hand-washes a Maserati in the driveway. The injustice gradually creeps up on you. The contrast pummels eye and conscience as scenes switch to very plausible scenarios of relatable Black and Brown extras forced to stand in line for water, steal piles of discarded ice cubes, and bathe by water bottle since the tap doesn’t work.
Organized armed resistance gradually flares up throughout the region as Hannity-like radio hosts feed listeners with daily misinformation. Fed-up revolutionaries are attacking water trucks. An unwilling main character, convincingly played by actor Darryl Dunning II, stumbles into a conspiracy.
There is a larger potential in a film like ‘Where the Water Runs.’ It’s not so much its value as an artistic conversation piece over appetizers, but it’s the way in which it generates enough interest to activate mobilization. On subjects like climate change or “global warming,” that’s always been a tough code to crack. How do you get people to not just take the environment seriously, but to take it personally? That kind of stark inequality and hyper-segregated resource supply could happen in any major city with a large concentration of vulnerable citizens in it – such as Philadelphia, the poorest large city in the nation and a place where low income residents routinely suffer environmental challenges from constant air pollution to suffocating urban heat islands.
Where the Water Runs poses a broader discussion on the power of video and messaging. Despite all the research, summits and discourse from scientists, experts and environmental justice advocates, sometimes all it takes is a jarring visual to make the point that troubling times are just around the corner.
But, beyond the occasional #Flint noise, are topics like the chief problem in Where the Water Runs highlighted in contemporary or popular Black discourse? The dilemma is that while these are alarmingly critical topics, Black communities – particularly on the working to lower income socio-economic scale – don’t always appear collectively moved by them the same way they are from controversy over NFL national anthem protests or the latest social media clip of an abusive 911 call. And if it reaches that point, in the same way that Hurricane Katrina or Flint did, it’s normally highlighted by celebrity calls to action. What can a film do?
Visual aids such as Where the Water Runs could offer an alternative form of issue advocacy combined with social chatter, especially when done by Black filmmakers and Hollywood icons as frequently as recent box-office runaway hits that have sparked pop-culture buzz around like, say, a ‘Black Panther’ or ‘Girls Trip.’ What Water Runs achieves is completely flipping the environmental disaster flick script through lead Black cast and voice in man-made disaster scenarios. Pushing more films like this to larger mass audiences could serve as a driver towards greater awareness, especially outside of limited engagement film festivals. Going viral into individual social media feeds, hitting the local movie screens or streaming on tablets could make the issue that more relatable and urgent.