- Directed by Kevin McMahon
- Narrated by Gord Downie
- Starring the Great Lakes
- Classification: G
An ambitious and lyrical cinematic essay on the Great Lakes water system, Kevin McMahon's Waterlife has much to admire in terms of visual style and a message that is timely and urgent. The impact is diffused, however, by a somewhat precious tone and the occasional blurring of scientific and inspirational message.
The initial story begins in the Gulf of St. Lawrence where, we learn, about 25 per cent of the beluga whales are suffering from cancer, presumably from contamination pouring down from the inland waterway. From there, the film takes us back to the beginning of the water's long journey at the head of Lake Superior. (McMahon has said that Holling C. Holling's 1941 children's book Paddle-to-the-sea was an influence.) The operative editing style here is to emphasize flow, and at times, the use of Philip Glass and other minimalist music, as well as slow-motion and time-lapse images, seems to deliberately echo Godfrey Reggio's famous art-nature film Koyaanisqatsi (1982).
Featuring a chorus of mostly unidentified scientists and other commentators (their names are listed during the closing credits), along with gruff narration from rock singer Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip, the water is explored from various perspectives - overhead views, underwater shots and seamlessly integrated visual recreations of what goes on at the molecular level.
Things start getting crazy when we hit Chicago, which maintains its pristine waterfront by sending all its garbage southward into the Mississippi River system. In the film's most cheerfully tasteless sequence, we see a "red-neck fishing derby" where beer-drinking Americans picnic on the sides of a polluted canal. They race motorboats in the water and use hand nets to toss about the invasive Asian carp like lacrosse balls. The carp, at least, are kept out of the Great Lakes system thanks to an electric underwater fence.
As the journey progresses, we see the lakes surrounded by new and old threats. The effects of overfishing and logging go back well into the 19th century, and some of the worst industrial pollution of a half-century ago has been ameliorated. The current dangers are like a gang attack: industrial toxins buried in harbour and river-mouth sediments; agricultural waste and storm-water and sewage overflows that dump bacteria in the lake; residential development that destroys shore ecology; invasive species, industrial wastes, pharmaceuticals and evaporation due to climate change.
This threat shouldn't require any overselling, but McMahon can't resist and you seriously wish the script had gone through another level of filtration to take out more of the lumpy bits (and the excess of musical selections). The Great Lakes are described as the "last" great supply of fresh water on Earth. (But what does the word "last" mean here?) Why must the invasive lamprey be described as "ancient and monstrous"?
Most dubious is the apocalyptic assertion by someone (again, speakers aren't identified) who suggests that because of our exposure to pollutants, we're collectively slipping into "narcosis" and will soon be too dumb to know what's happening to us. There's no evidence offered, and the claim doesn't jibe with the phenomenon of rising IQ rates. Perhaps, our fears have been dulled by the anti-depressants in the chemical soup of our drinking water.
Throughout the film, McMahon follows the campaign by Josephine Mandamin, an Anishinabe elder from Thunder Bay, who is conducting a multiyear walk each spring around all of the Great Lakes to draw attention to deteriorating conditions. Her protest is admirable, but it's pure ethno-romanticism to suddenly invoke "Great Law," or the centuries-old oral constitution of the Iroquois nation, as an answer to a potential disaster facing 35 million people today.
While we're waiting for this mass consciousness shift, could somebody fix the plumbing?