Although not exactly this year's Jaws - with its well known "Don't go in the water" slogan - Kevin McMahon's new documentary Waterlife is nevertheless must-see cinema for anyone planning to dip a toe into one of the Great Lakes this summer.
The information in this poetic cautionary tale is probably not news to the likes of the film's narrator, Tragically Hip front man Gord Downie, who lives near Lake Ontario and supports the international citizen-led Waterkeeper Alliance. (A new Hip tune Morning Moon plays during Waterlife 's end credits.)
But over the years the state of the Great Lakes, which provide 20 per cent of the planet's fresh water, has fallen off the radar of many North American "users," asserts McMahon, who grew up in Niagara Falls, Ont., and explored the beauty and hidden horrors of the tourist mecca in his 1991 doc The Falls .
"When I started out as a reporter at The Standard in St. Catharines, the water in the area was getting more polluted and it was front-page news," McMahon recalls, during an interview in his office at Primitive Entertainment, a Toronto-based TV- and film-production company. Since then, he says governments have sidelined several water-focused organizations including the International Joint Commission, a watchdog agency established 100 years ago by the Canadian and American governments to settle disputes.
"My first motivation was the idea of how ignored the problems are and how bizarre that is," McMahon says. "I started talking to scientists, who can go anywhere in Lake Ontario, pull up water and find not just mercury and PCBs [a class of compounds banned in the seventies] but Prozac. I was surprised how bad things are."
But McMahon's most shocking discovery wasn't included in Waterlife . "If you are, for example, an Environment Canada scientist who wants to study the water in the harbour of the Bay of Quinte, you're on salary, but you need to raise the money for all your field costs," he explains. "So a lot of research on the lakes is underwritten by power companies. If a scientist finds the water outside my factory is poison, part of the deal is he can't say it's outside my factory."
While McMahon says he is appalled by the level of self-satisfaction on the part of politicians and industry with regards to the state of the Great Lakes, he believes politics and bureaucratic matters don't resonate much with audiences.
Waterlife bucks the activist doc trend by taking viewers on a journey where the pleasures and perils of the Great Lakes are both offered up.
McMahon's films - which include In the Reign of Twilight (1995) and McLuhan's Wake (2002) - tend to offer an experience that allows the audience to make up their own minds. "As much as I admire Michael Moore or Al Gore, I couldn't pull off their kind of activist film," he says.
His organizing principle for Waterlife was inspired by Paddle-to-the-Sea , Holling C. Holling's 1941 children's classic, which was made into a popular NFB film by legendary artist and canoeist Bill Mason.
"At one point I even considered remaking the film with a carved canoe moving through the Great Lakes system," says McMahon, who eventually decided the notion would have become a distraction from the film's serious issues.
Not that Waterlife doesn't have its whimsical moments: A fast-paced sequence showing the process of hatching, collecting and delivering farmed fish to the Great Lakes - accompanied by the jaunty punk rock of Dropkick Muphys - is a standout.
Although McMahon didn't used a carved canoe, the aboriginal connection to water is well represented by Josephine Mandamin, the Thunder Bay grandmother and Anishinabe elder who set out six years ago to walk around all of the Great Lakes to raise awareness of ecological issues and pray for healing.
"We had already started filming when I first heard about her," McMahon recalls. "When I met her, she had been walking each spring for four years and had received zero media coverage. But she doesn't care. Her idea is to talk to people one on one as she walks along. I never could have invented her, so that discovery was a real gift to Waterlife ."
Waterlife is now playing in Toronto. It opens in Vancouver on June 19 and in other cities throughout the summer.