Doug from California asks: I grew up in the Central Valley of California near Stockton, and now use a similar utility that is going through discussions of privatization. My question is the following: In filming and editing a program such as “Thirst” — a documentary designed to stir emotions and discussion — how do you maintain the independence and objectivity needed to present both sides equally and fairly, without trying to steer the viewer’s reaction to one side or the other?
Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman: POV’s specialty is the broadcast of independently produced documentaries that assert a strong filmmaker point of view. Thirst fits well into the category, since we believe strongly that water is essential for our communities and must remain a public trust. Our approach to this documentary is to present issues from multiple perspectives, revealing that the future of our water is a subject of dramatic, often-heated debate.
“Thirst” shows Stockton Mayor Gary Podesto, World Bank Managing Director Peter Woicke, and Thames Vice-President Dreda Gaines explaining their perspectives with comments that must be considered by people on all sides of the issue: the reduction in federal aid for water infrastructure, the question of who will pay for water, and the need for billions of dollars in new spending to keep water affordable and clean.
We consider ourselves “independent” filmmakers because our documentaries reveal our own perspectives, not those of a network, a community group, a funder, a boss, or a political entity. The price we and other independent filmmakers pay for this independence is often high and includes financial marginality and difficulty in getting widespread distribution in our increasingly concentrated, consensus-oriented, politically safe, celebrity-fawning, power-obsequious media world.
Finally, there are many kinds of documentaries: political essays like Michael Moore’s work to verité work like Frederick Wiseman to historical evocations like Ken Burns, to name just a famous few. Some have an on-camera commentator, some have narration, some have text, and some rely on the unfolding of the drama and issues without commentary of any kind. However, each in its way presents the filmmakers perspective and each in its way must draw the viewer inexorably into a grasp of the importance and emotional power of the issues portrayed and the filmmakers point of view about them.
Our work, including Blacks and Jews, Secrets of Silicon Valley, and Thirst, always aims to challenge consensus views of issues and to draw out the basis of conflicts. We hope that our films unsettle what people think about the issues we depict and force audience members to question their presuppositions, biases, and subliminally or overtly received ideas from the mainstream media. Bringing the heat and light of public debate to water fits this mandate since most of us rarely think of the hidden pipes and flows that undergird our society.
Steve from Texas asks: In the U.S., we are certainly blessed with an abundance of water. I do hear about wealthy individuals and or corporations buying up water rights. Who is doing this in the U.S.? What U.S. corporations and other international corporations are quietly taking control? What is the U.S. Government doing, if anything, to make sure we have adequate water supply and availability to all? What branch of the U.S. Government is responsible and what direction is it taking? Is the Republican Party or the Democratic Party favoring privatization?
Snitow and Kaufman: A lot of questions. Here are some thoughts.
Since you’re from Texas, you probably know that although some parts of the United States may be blessed with an abundance of water, your state is not. The result has been water battles galore. There has been a major controversy in Texas brewing over entrepreneurs’ plans to pump groundwater and pipe it hundreds of miles to cities for a profit. This is “mining” just like oil-drilling, and it is often the same people who are involved in both efforts. There are also battles with Mexico over the Rio Grande River, the conflict about building a major subdivision in San Antonio over the area’s major aquifer, the pollution of feed lots, etc.
Among the major corporations involved in bidding for control of public water are Veolia, Suez, and Thames/RWE — all based in Europe and among the largest corporations in the world — and rapidly consolidating U.S.-based water companies like Aqua, Southwest Water, and OMI.
The current administration in Washington is committed to what it calls “small government,” by which it means cutbacks in social programs and support for private companies to take over public sector functions. In line with this, the administration has supported efforts in Congress for legislation that would require local utilities to show that they are considering privatization as a condition of receiving water infrastructure funding. This is very similar to what the IMF and World Bank do in developing countries when these international institutions require privatization as a condition for new loans. The current administration has been a leader in cutting funding, regulation, and consumer protections on water issues. The private water sector has supported — and in some cases, proposed — these efforts.
Keeping water a public trust and in local hands is a bipartisan issue. Local control has long been a conservative value claimed by many Republicans. However, the new breed of corporate Republicans give lip service to this ideal, but are willing to use national legislation to intervene in traditionally local issues, e.g. public utility management. The current administration is ideologically committed to privatization of almost all government functions, even some military operations. As is so often the case, Democrats fall on both sides of these issues with some Democrats joining the calls for privatization. By and large, Democrats in Washington are more skeptical of privatization than Republicans.
J.P. from California asks: I posted my congrats and thoughts in the discussion forum (“Small is Beautiful”), but as someone who writes and speaks on indie filmmaking, I’d like to hear about how you tackled the big hurdles of filmmaking: financing and distribution (I’m assuming you didn’t have to worry about the other big one, marketing, since PBS picked it up). How did you solve them?
Snitow and Kaufman: As you note, POV’s decision to broadcast Thirst was wonderful for us, since there are so few outlets that present independent documentaries to national audiences. Our educational and cassette distribution is handled by Bullfrog Films, the leading distributor of documentaries on the environment and globalization (www.bullfrogfilms.com).
Finances are always tough for independents. We raise money from foundations, donors, government arts and humanities agencies, etc. In the case of “Thirst”, we were able to speed up our production by a year because of a grant from the MacArthur Foundation. It was a big surprise, since when we started on this project we had no idea if any funders would be interested. Utilities are not exactly what most people or funders think of as the stuff of exciting documentaries.
Christa from New York asks: How much did it cost to make the film?
Snitow and Kaufman: The budget for the production of Thirst was $340,000, which includes research, filming, and editing over a little more than two years.
Len from California asks: Although privatization is discussed throughout the film, not once did I hear what the results of privatization might be other than in broad, negative terms. In one segment of the film, a woman at the World Water Conference raised the issue of Atlanta. Yet we never learned anything about what happened in Atlanta. Did the water rates go up? If so, by how much? Was there a change in water quality? Why did you not present concrete, quantitative information about the results of privatization? For example, what percentage of U.S. cities have privatized their water supply? What have been the results?
Snitow and Kaufman: More than 85% of Americans are served by public water systems. Most private systems are small. The big change over the past few years has been the entrance of huge multinational water companies into the water arena, buying out smaller operations and moving aggressively to get new long-term contracts to take over publicly-owned water services.
The results of this new phase of privatization should raise a lot of concerns. Here are some of them:
In Atlanta after privatization by Suez’s subsidiary United Water, rates went up, services went down, many employees were laid off, there were repeated boil water alerts because of debris in the water, and leaks went unfixed for weeks at a time. The statement at the World Water Conference by Wenonah Hauter of Public Citizen covered that ground pretty well. Atlanta has become the poster child for failed privatization because the failure was quite spectacular and it was the largest contract of its kind in the United States.
In Milwaukee, United Water is under fire for cutting staff at the sewage treatment plant by a third, delayed maintenance, reduced inventories of crucial spare parts, and was responsible for recent incidents of dumping sewage during major storms, including one incident in which “a slick of spent condoms was released from the plant.”
A number of cities are trying to take control of private water systems. Such efforts are underway or are under discussion in the California towns of Felton, Montara, and Thousand Oaks and in Lexington, Kentucky.
Puerto Rico terminated a major contract with United Water for non-compliance earlier this year.
New Orleans, Louisiana and Lawrence, Massachusetts recently rejected privatization after intense public debates.
These examples could go on and on, and the private water companies claim to have many counter-examples, although they never acknowledge the instability of the private water industry at this time. Water companies are constantly changing hands in a period of rapid consolidation by the multinationals and a few large American companies. Once your local water utility is private, it can be bought out by or sold out to another company with different management that you’ve never dealt with. That doesn’t matter so much for many products and services, but water is a monopoly, and you can’t go to another utility for your water.
A leading private water industry publication reported in June: “Powerful political forces have risen up against privatization, major projects have gone poorly or failed and the fears generated by impending privatization have forced greater efficiency at many public authorities anyway.”
This last point refers to a movement that is underway — more because of tight budgets than the threat of privatization — to re-engineer public water utilities to increase efficiency and improve training. San Diego is one major city where this has been carried out.
Finally, Stockton’s privatization is now before the courts because of the city’s failure to carry out environmental impact reports. There are also reports of delayed maintenance, the hiring of temporary workers, a fish-kill by a contractor hired because of cheap non-union labor, and the failure to use odor-reducing chemicals in the area of the city where working class people, immigrants, and minorities tend to reside. Finally, during the campaign to win the contract, private water companies spent tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to influence politicians and the public — an unprecedented amount in that city.
Lloyd from Pennsylvania asks: I asked the students in my Globalization class to watch the film. Our reaction was that the film emphasized interpersonal conflict but didn’t present much information–lots of people shouting at one another, but no way to tell who was right. We have two questions, one general, one specific: First, was your film subjected to censorship by PBS or self-censorship to make it acceptable to PBS? Did you have to go out of your way to avoid offending water corporations? Second, the claim by the mayor of Stockton that citizens would save $172 million was pretty startling. Do you know how he arrived at this figure? Did you make any attempt to evaluate its credibility?
Snitow and Kaufman: Our film was not subjected to any censorship and we made the film we wanted, and it is likely to be one of the most politically controversial films you’ll see anywhere on TV this year. POV supported the film every step of the way, even after repeated water company attacks on the film and on the filmmakers.
The water companies’ PR people condemned Thirst, handed out leaflets at our screenings, demanded changes in websites, and warned their employees and even big city mayors against the film. These heated criticisms come from four of the world’s largest corporations, including Bechtel and Veolia, and the industry’s trade and lobbying associations.
Fortunately, our right to make the film and their right to criticize it are still protected speech in this country. Hopefully, your class will participate in efforts to insure those rights this fall.
Stockton Mayor Gary Podesto’s 172 million dollar savings figure for 20 years of privatization was disputed throughout the fight in Stockton. Twenty year projections are always pretty funny in hindsight. We remember huge savings projected for energy deregulation in California.
The Pacific Institute, an independent think tank on water issues, released a report that said continued public management in Stockton would cost the same or be slightly cheaper than the private company. The Mayor preferred a different conclusion from a consulting firm that has done extensive work for private water companies. Critics of the privatization said the figures were cooked and that the comparisons involved best-case scenarios for the private company management and worst case scenarios for public management.
However, there are other considerations beyond cost savings when it comes to privatization. Corporate profits in this country have increasingly relied on cutting costs through outsourcing, hiring temporary workers with no security or benefits, cutting benefits, speed-ups, cutting corners on safety, lobbying against regulations, etc. — all part of Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan’s vaunted productivity increases, although usually reported as solely the result of wonderful computerization. We think that a lot of Americans won’t want to take these risks with their water supply.
Finally, Thirst is our attempt to put the issue of water privatization on the public agenda. That is the power of visual media, to get people talking, to link emotions and arguments to issues. We’re not going to tell you in our movies who is right or who to vote for. If you’re not getting the factual run-downs you need from your daily papers or other print media, you should give them a call and ask why and then do the research yourselves. We have some good websites to start: www.pbs.org/pov/thirst, www.thirstthemovie.org, www.sierraclub.org/water, www.waterforall.org, www.canadians.org, and www.polarisinstitute.org.
Teresa from Texas asks: From your experience and knowledge, what course of action would you recommend to the citizens of the United States about water?
Snitow and Kaufman: With rights — including the right to water — come responsibilities. It is the responsibility of citizens to insist that their governments treat water as a public trust, insure that all people have a right to a basic lifeline of water, insure that their water is clean and accessible, and develop serious water conservation programs.
We think citizens are willing to support those political leaders who say that there is no free lunch — in spite of corporate promises to save you a buck. If Americans want clean, public water — and public water in North America with all its flaws is the most successful and best water system in history — then we as citizens have to be willing to pay for its upkeep through taxes, rates and bonds.
Allen asks: How can I fight water privatization in my own state?
Snitow and Kaufman: We never thought you’d ask!
First, you have to find out if and when privatization is being proposed or considered in your area or state. Budget-strapped mayors are being lobbied intensively by the water companies to privatize water to get a big public obligation off the city books. There is little countervailing lobbying underway. The water companies’ fear of their critics shows how vulnerable their proposals are to the light of day and public debate.
You can ask your city council or state legislature to approve an ordinance or resolution declaring water a human right and public trust. One such resolution by Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky of Illinois is before the House of Representatives. The language can be adapted to local needs.
You can work with groups like the Sierra Club, Public Citizen, League of Women Voters, civil rights organizations, your union, your church, synagogue, and mosque to get the word out and demand that any decisions about the future of your water be subject to public participation and a public vote.
It is possible to take this country back and keep local control of basic services. Democracy isn’t easy, but it is worth the effort. Good luck.