Kevin McMahon creates a rich and important portrayal of the Great Lakes in Waterlife, his 2009 documentary. It is rich in its exquisitely intimate cinematography and I scarcely have to point the importance of these lakes to those of us who live on this continent.
McMahon doesn’t dwell, as other NFB directors have, on the glacial origin of the Great Lakes. Instead, he bookends the film with Beluga Whales in the St. Lawrence who are among the most contaminated marine mammals on the planet. Even Beluga mothers are passing on cancer to their children at an alarming rate. Why? The water looks pristine… but there’s a lot happening below the surface and the documentary, starting with Lake Superior, takes us on a stunning journey to understand our waters. At the end I came back to the Belugas a good deal wiser.
Another image that is revisited is footage of an Anishinabe medicine woman and some of her group who walk the 17,000 kilometres around the Great Lakes. She doesn’t rant at us: her’s is a mostly silent testimonial of what the Lakes mean to her.
Here are some quotes I think should be shared:
- “It took one year for them to take over the ecosystem.” (the invasion of zebra mussels into the Great Lakes as a result of our activities)
- “If you looked at those sites in the Great Lakes where the contaminants were having a severe effect and you wanted to dredge and destroy all that material you’re talking 10’s of billions of dollars to do that.”
- “Every chemical we’ve looked for has been found” (in the waters and sediments of the Great Lakes)
- “I am a child of the 60’s. I remember fires on rivers and all those sorts of things. I remember why we had a Clean Water Act. My fear is the generation of my daughters have grown to trust that the government is watching the environment and sometimes it’s not happening.”
- “We’ve become so dumb, we don’t know how dumb we’ve become” (with the poisons in our water)
- “You go to the pharmacy. The pharmacist gives you a prescription. But make sure you don’t take it with the following ten things. All those ten things are in the water.”
- “We’re living in a soup of chemicals and the Great Lakes are telling you that.”
- “We know it’s not a crazy thing we’re doing. We know it’s for the betterment of the next generation.”
One of the surprising statements from the film, for me, was that it takes water about 350 years to move from the streams entering Lake Superior to the mouth of the St. Lawrence Seaway. The water going over Niagara seems so fast but it’s not telling the real story, it seems. The sins of our past are all still there working their way down the flow.
The film was absolutely the best and most beautiful documentary I experienced this year at the festival and I cannot recommend it highly enough. An amazing soundtrack is made even more impressive with the narration of Canadian rock legend Gord Downie. Anyone living in this part of the world should see this work of art and profound fact. And as excellent as the film is, the website is one of the best supporting sites I have ever seen. It’s also a lovingly crafted multimedia experience that should not be missed (if you can see flash on your computer).