Filmmaker Cullen Hoback’s previous film Terms and Conditions May Apply (2013), a humorous but chilling documentary about the erosion of online privacy and what info governments and corporations are legally taking from citizens each day, has become (or remains) timely again. Hoback’s new film, What Lies Upstream, promises to remain relevant for some time as well. It’s an unsettling expose about what led to, and the fallout from, the unprecedented loss of clean water for over 300,000 Americans in the 2014 Elk River chemical spill in West Virginia. (And as you’ll read at the end of this Q&A, his follow-up film sounds eerily timely and important as well.)

The film is “a quietly devastating documentary that’s all the more attention-grabbing for being such a scrupulously restrained and slickly polished piece of work,” wrote Joe Leydon in Variety. “Hoback’s a thorough researcher,” adds Matt Cohen in Washington City Paper, “and there’s no denying that the questions raised in his doc–and the lack of concrete answers from public officials–should be of grave concern.” What Lies Upstream premieres on Independent Lens on PBS Monday, April 16 at 10 pm [check local listings].

Hoback has appeared on MSNBC, CNN, NPR, Fox, and HuffPost Live and has written op-eds for The Guardian and other major media outlets. He emailed with us about the journey literal and metaphorical to make this powerful piece of journalism, how he got politicians to talk about this controversial topic, and how it was for the Californian filmmaker to return to a place he spent parts of his childhood.

Why did you make this film? Was it your own family connection (that you talk about in the film) to West Virginia?

It was 10 PM on January 9th, 2014, when my mom texted me the message: “Have you seen what’s happening in West Virginia?” Childhood nostalgia is a powerful force.

When I was a kid, most summers we would visit my Uncle Dave, a gaunt, generous man with a fondness for the seclusion of the woods. Uncle Dave was the closest thing my dad ever had to a father. Likewise, he taught me how to shoot a bow and arrow and to fish, and played the role of grandfather. West Virginia had a mysterious quality to it—from the lush hollers with creeks at every turn to the sounds of gunfire in the distance; it felt like a place outside of time. I loved it in the way a kid finds autonomy in a tree house or freedom at summer camp. But my uncle died from cancer when I was 10—and I hadn’t been back since.

WV resident fills up bottles of water from contaminated tankers provided by American Water.
WV resident fills up bottles of water from contaminated tankers provided by American Water.

Back in the present, the news reports seemed impossible. The online map of West Virginia showed a red stain covering nearly half the state, indicating that 300,000 people had been exposed to a mysterious chemical in their drinking water. I imagined my childhood self-caught in this crisis with all attendant impotence and fear. But now, as a filmmaker with a penchant for investigation, I was in a unique position to act.

“I imagined my childhood self caught in this crisis with all attendant impotence and fear. But now, as a filmmaker with a penchant for investigation, I was in a unique position to act.”The dichotomy of what West Virginia was in my mind versus what it was, in reality, was stark. Temperatures were below zero, the scenery a mush of browns and grays, a color palette that would eventually shape the look of the film. My past invoked a sense of mystery that influenced the film’s tone. We rented a country home on the outskirts of Charleston, the capital city where the spill had taken place. My crew and I adapted to the bottled-water shower, not realizing this would become our routine in the months ahead.

I quickly discovered, being an outsider in West Virginia, that this spill had changed attitudes. As long as you didn’t bring up coal, folks were eager to talk, and politicians and state regulators were motivated to be seen in a positive light. I would come to appreciate folks’ sense of pride in the blue-collar sacrifice of their coal mining and chemical-making past—one that put hard labor above health—as well as the trappings of it.

Over the next three years, this initial access would prove critical to revealing the machinations of the regulatory system ostensibly designed to protect drinking water. The situation would devolve and darken, yet the momentum of documentation seemed to compel my characters to remain involved.

I still struggle when I think of one particular character, a man who became my friend, who started on the side of public safety only to end up being manipulated by the very forces he once flatly opposed. I fought with myself constantly in the editing room, trying to justify the actions of many characters in the film. Ultimately, my feelings to a backseat to the facts, as best I could decipher them.

Randy Huffman (at right) talks to Hoback about his complicity in 25,000 violations of the Clean Water Act. Huffman is Cabinet Secretary for West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection.
Randy Huffman (at right) talks to Hoback about his complicity in 25,000 violations of the Clean Water Act. Huffman is Cabinet Secretary for West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection.

And did the Flint water crisis have a bearing on wanting to make this film, too?

Without the crisis in Flint, I doubt I ever would have come to understand the totality of the problem to see that West Virginia wasn’t some hyperbolic example of what happens when deregulation runs its course, and where political pressure overrides scientific evidence and public health. I came to learn that chemicals and their safety in the environment, as revealed through the regulators, politicians, and lobbyists, are really a legal matter, one masked under the pretense of science. “This is a political story. Cameras are political tools and good politicians know how to use them to their advantage.”

I have to thank the journalists in Charleston—their daily rigorous pursuit of the truth made this film possible. I’ll also be forever grateful to Flint expert Dr. Marc Edwards and EPA whistleblower Dr. David Lewis for providing key clues about our regulators, clues that would eventually solve the question I didn’t think to ask: Why is the system to protect drinking water in America broken? I didn’t think to ask this question, because I didn’t know that it was.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making What Lies Upstream?

Uncertainty. Not knowing the right question to ask. Namely: Why is the system to protect drinking water in America broken? I didn’t think to ask it because I didn’t know that it was.

If the system is broken, as you say, in your opinion how do we fix things so a crisis like this doesn’t happen again?

If we want to fix this broken system, the following things need to change: 1) Campaign Finance Reform; 2) Increased Accountability for Regulators; 3) Separation of Politics from Science. These are non-partisan concepts that can be implemented at the state level. We also need to support research conducted by independent scientists like Dr. Marc Edwards, Dr. Mona Hannah-Attisha, Dr. Andy Whelton and Dr. David Lewis. They’re the true heroes of this story.

How did you gain the trust of all the subjects in your film (including politicians)?

This is a political story. Cameras are political tools and good politicians know how to use them to their advantage. If they trusted me, it was that they trusted I would tell a story that would be seen by audiences because of my prior work. By the third year, I think some people had their doubts. I’m also not affiliated with any political party… maybe that helps.

Was there anything you had to leave out of What Lies Upstream but you still deem important?

There’s a scene near the end of the film where I confront public officials over a carcinogenic chemical that appeared in drinking water samples. I have a heated conversation with the head of the water company, West Virginia American Water, that I had to cut. This occurs immediately following the water company president publicly attacking me in front of a room full of people. The scene would have revealed that the water company was almost certainly the force pulling the strings to discredit the USGS backed research, intimidate regulators, and keep the story out of the local papers.

Mind you, West Virginia American Water is a branch of one of the largest, wealthiest private water companies in the world: American Water. Unfortunately, it didn’t fit into the flow of the story and made the overall sequence 2 minutes too long.

Do you have a scene in your film that is especially a favorite or made the most impact on you?

Oh, there’s so many. I personally love the water festival tasting sequence. The absurdity of people wearing tuxes and cocktail dresses to an affair where water, the most vital resource on earth, can be judged like a fine wine is so layered with meaning that it haunts and delights with every viewing. It also adds some much-needed humor in the middle of an information banquet. 

What are your three favorite/most influential documentaries or feature films?

Fog of War, Chinatown, Inside Job.

What film/project(s) are you working on next?

I’m filming a project on the threat to civil liberties posed by electronic voting.

Do you have any updates on the main characters in your film you can share with our audience?

Make sure you watch all the way through the credit sequence. Updates ensue.