In the face of official denial and repression, extraordinary citizens fight for clean water. Can they succeed?
Interview with Writer/Director/Producer Leana Hosea
Congratulations! Why did you make your film?
I’ve been a BBC journalist in International News for the past twelve years and I’ve covered a lot of incredible and harrowing stories. I was breaking news in Cairo, Egypt reporting on The Arab Spring from day one in Tahrir Square, the war in Gaza and the crisis in Yemen. But nothing prepared me for what I saw on the Navajo reservation; communities living amid piles of radioactive waste, drinking uranium-contaminated water. This story has touched me like no other. Yet no one I spoke to afterwards seemed to know anything about it. Across in Michigan, one of the most water-rich places in the world, the town of Flint has been poisoned by its water. Just like on the Navajo reservation the authorities knew and did not act to protect people.
I came to America in September 2016 on a prestigious Knight-Wallace Fellowship for Journalists at the University of Michigan to research water contamination issues on the Navajo land and in Flint. I found a story so compelling and characters so engaging, that I knew I had the ingredients for a documentary film. At the beginning of the filmmaking process, I was concerned not to exaggerate the problem, but the more I learned about water contamination I realised I've probably not stressed the problem enough. It's bigger and more urgent than I realised. Whilst making the film I did a second fellowship at the School of Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan, where I took classes in environmental justice, toxicology, undertook radiological training and Native American Literature and History.
Imagine I’m a member of the audience. Why should I watch this film?
The National Academy of Sciences reported that in 2015 as many as 21 million Americans were exposed to unsafe drinking water. There is a nearly one-in-four chance your tap water is either not entirely safe to drink, or not adequately monitored for contaminants, according to the National Resource Defense Council. Access to clean drinking water is a problem which affects every member of the audience, whether they know it or not.
Thirst For Justice tells the human stories behind these stark statistics. Seen through the eyes of two communities; Flint and the Navajo Nation, this story links widespread water contamination to health issues and reveals a country whose democracy is fast disappearing. Guided by passionate journalist Leana Hosea, she takes viewers on a journey to experience the emotional struggles of extraordinary citizens fighting for their health and justice. She meets the experts that reveal devastating facts about the crisis we are in and makes extraordinary discoveries. The hope is found in the strength and cooperation within and between communities. It seems that being human has become a revolutionary act in itself in this day and age.
There are many villains - the corporate giants, government officials and the forces of racism, greed and inequality. But there are also heroes and heroines fighting to take back their power to protect our most precious resource – water. My film is about connecting the dots to see the bigger picture, allowing viewers to realise that this is not just an anomaly. It could happen in the viewers' own backyard - if it isn’t already.
How do personal and universal themes work in your film?
Other films have been made about water and there has been some news and social media coverage about Flint and Standing Rock. But there has never been a film that weaves together these three crucial stories of water contamination and state/corporate crime together the way Thirst For Justice does. Thirst For Justice tells a big picture narrative, but through the lives of a few extraordinary characters. The mix of the characters themselves is new. I’ve seen films about Native Americans or African Americans or the white working class. But my film is about stepping out of the silos and bringing these stories together in a unique way.
These communities are not living on islands by themselves, which indigenous communities are often portrayed as. The characters realise that their divisions of identity are superficial as they are facing the same issues. The most effective way to take on the might of polluting industries who don’t want to regulate or find alternatives is to unite with one another and become a force to be reckoned with. Water is that common thread that connects them. The subtext is that it's structured on indigenous prophecy. It's the rising up of the youth, the uniting of the races and women asserting their power that the balance can be brought back in the world and we can stop destroying our earth.
How have the script and film evolved over the course of their development?
I started the film as verite, but I realised that because of the different locations and having more than one strong character, I needed to be the common link.
What type of feedback have you received so far?
The film is dramatic, informative and emotional. The fact that I was arrested while filming illustrates the falling away of democratic rights and abuses of power that we see throughout the film. The extent and seriousness of radioactive waste on the Navajo Nation was revelatory and the way I back this up with my own Geiger counter readings and expert interviews is indisputable. How I then widen it out to show it's a national problem with 15,000 abandoned uranium mines across the USA, made it more relevant. This goes for Flint too, where viewers may have known what happened, but they had not felt emotionally connected before watching my film. Viewers may have heard about Standing Rock, but they had no idea about the levels of brutality and the police/private security company targeting of camp medics, till they saw Thirst For Justice. The story is very important and that it made viewers aware of the extent and urgency of our looming water crisis, where they had not been before.
Has the feedback surprised or challenged your point of view?
I've re-edited the film a few times following test screenings to explain the story more clearly and hand hold the viewer more on where we are and who is who.
What are you looking to achieve by having your film more visible on www.wearemovingstories.com?
Make connections, grow my audience, sell the film and attract funders to support the planned impact campaign, detailed in the answer below.
Who do you need to come on board (producers, sales agents, buyers, distributors, film festival directors, journalists) to amplify this film’s message?
I've only just finished the film and I'm now at the beginning of the promotion cycle. I would like it to go into more festivals, get distribution and publicity. So I need people on board who will help with that, be it a distributor or a sales agent to get that distribution for me. I own all the rights.
For journalists what's interesting is that the film offers a new way to cover widespread contamination and rights issues. I discover areas more radioactive than Chernobyl in Arizona, near one of the main entrances to the Grand Canyon. I used the Geiger counter of Nuclear Engineering Professor Kearfott at the University of Michigan, who trained me to take these readings and then took soil samples back for her. I maxed out the Geiger counter and it's absolutely accurate. The film also highlights attacks on the media, as I was arrested while filming. Thirst For Justice exposes numerous abuses of power, including catching uranium industry heads saying it's safe to eat enriched uranium, the Sheriff of Morten county denying they used water canon - which I film them using - and the inside story in Wisconsin of the undue influence on the police and District Attorney of the biggest oil pipeline company in North America, Enbridge, trying to fine me $85,000 for filming a tiny, peaceful protest.
What type of impact and/or reception would you like this film to have?
I'd like to inform viewers about water issues, then spark debate and action within and between communities. Thirst for Justice reveals how indigenous, black and white community leaders can build bridges to work together, and how their work can be supported by expert knowledge and strong democratic political process. The team I’m part of at the School of Environment and Sustainability (SEAS) at the University of Michigan have created transformative open source high school, higher ed and adult learning materials for sustainability science and action on a bespoke platform: galaxy.learngala.com. Our partners include Harvard University in Boston, Tsinghua University in Beijing, Indian School of Business in Hyderabad and the National Science Foundation (NSF’s) Centre for Ecological and Social Synthesis in Annapolis, Maryland, and the USDA Forest Service Network of Urban Field Stations across the U.S. My role as SEAS environmental media fellow has been to integrate media production for that platform with educational resources for students and communities, to link my film with the platform, and with an online short course featured on Coursera with more than 28 million global users.
We screened the rough cut of Thirst for Justice at the historic Michigan Theatre in Ann Arbor last June for an audience of 450. There we tested an online tool for eliciting audience feedback in real time, through a short qualtrics tool available on their phones in the theater. We had a better than 50% response rate. We also had a panel discussion with the film director and protagonists. The next day we hosted an experimental charette with experts in toxicology, public health and water from the University of Michigan, state government regulatory agencies, citizen science activists, and local residents to discuss Ann Arbor’s local water issue; dioxane 1,4 plume. This group created specs for a mobile phone friendly “FAQ” website that can synthesize key information from DEQ, Public Health, and Civic sites, and provide better information and engagement tools. The model of using the film convenes to audiences, providing a forum and tools for stakeholders to engage and innovate on local water issues can work across the country.
Data from the rough cut screening have shaped the final cut of Thirst for Justice and we are using materials from the cutting room floor to build educational modules on Thirst For Justice for the galaxy.learngala.com platform. These will include extra content from the film and longer versions of the expert interviews. Participants can delve in greater depth into the Flint and Navajo stories, learn more about the science around heavy metals and water contamination, public health impacts, policy failures, tribal perspectives and environmental justice. This will accompany an online short course or Teach Out produced by the University of Michigan on water contamination, with a dynamic, interactive resource on actions communities can take to create change.
What’s a key question that will help spark a debate or begin a conversation about this film?
Is water a human right?
Interview: April 2019
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Thirst For Justice
In the face of official denial and repression, extraordinary citizens fight for clean water. Can they succeed?
Director: Leana Hosea
Producer: Leana Hosea
Writer: Leana Hosea
About the writer, director and producer:
LEANA HOSEA is a multi-media journalist with over 12 years of experience working for the BBC in global news and current affairs. Leana has reported and produced several documentaries for the BBC. For her short film Rhino Wars Leana persuaded poachers to talk about their trade openly on camera for the first time. Leana produced a BBC film following the Muslim televangelist Amr Khaled, who has more followers than Oprah, as he travelled around Yemen combating extremism. She secured interviews with President Ali Abdullah Saleh and Osama Bin Laden's former bodyguard. Link here. The TV report she filmed on the first day of the Egyptian revolution in Tahrir Square, won the correspondent Jon Leyne a nomination for the Bayeux War Reporting Award. As the Middle East Business Reporter, she shot and edited her own TV pieces from across the region and is one of the few journalists to film inside Qatari labor camps.
Key cast: Rich Smith (editor), Lauretta Prevost (Standing Rock camera), Lucas Mullikin (drone), Marsha Monestersky (researcher/fixer), Professor Rebecca Hardin (academic advisor), Mary Lyons (cultural consultant), Janene Yazzie (primary protagonist), Christina Murphy and Nayyirah Shariff (main protagonists), Kern Collymore and Adam Murphy (protagonists), Professor Laura Sullivan (Flint expert)
Looking for: sales agents, journalists, distributors, film festival directors, buyers
Facebook: To The Last Drop
Hashtags used: #ThirstForJustice, #WaterProtectors
Funders: Indiegogo, University of Michigan, Michigan philanthropists and self-funded,
Where can I watch it next and in the coming month? Bentonville: 8 May 3PM-5PM Skylight 4 and 9th May 2:30PM-4:30PM WM World Room