World Water Day: Considering water on film

Today is World Water Day, a day designated by the United Nations since 1993, for people everywhere to consider water as both a right and a resource.

The public is asked to consider critical water issues because not everyone on this planet has access to drinkable water. In 2014, water and energy is the focus.

The UN states 8 percent of all global energy generation is used for pumping, treating and transporting water to consumers. About 19 percent of California’s total electricity consumption is used in transporting water from Northern California to Southern California, according to the California Department of Water Resources.

It’s worth considering water in historical and cultural context and here are movies that I think are worth watching, listed in alphabetical order:

  1. All Is Lost (2013)
  2. Chasing Ice (2012)
  3. Chinatown (1974)
  4. Dune (1984)
  5. The Dust Bowl (2012)
  6. FLOW: For Love of Water (2008)
  7. The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
  8. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
  9. Pumzi (2010) short feature
  10. The Rainmaker (1956)
  11. Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
  12. The West (1996)

“All Is Lost” is J.C. Chandor’s survival movie which stars Robert Redford as an unknown man who loses radio contact somewhere in the Indian Ocean as his boat collides with a shipping container and begins to take on water. The movie isn’t hard to follow as there is almost no dialogue and it comes a year before airplanes are searching the same Indian Ocean for a Malaysian airplane, Flight MH370, which departed Beijing 8 March 2014 with 239 people heading for Kuala Lumpur, when it completely disappeared.

Redford received a Golden Globe nomination and won a Best Actor award from the New York Critics Circle. Alex Ebert won a Golden Globe for Best Original Score.

Currently available on iTunes and Amazon Instant.

“Chasing Ice” is a 2012 documentary by nature photographer James Balog who led an Extreme Ice Survey which clearly demonstrates the effects of climate change. Jeff Orlowski directs. The movie won a Satellite Award for Best Documentary Film and received an Oscar nomination for Besto Original Song (“Before My Time” written by J. Ralph and performaed by Scarlett Johansson and Joshua Bell.)

Currently available on Netflix, Amazon and iTunes.

The 1974 neo-noir film “Chinatown” was a fictional account about the California Water Wars–a conflict between Los Angeles, farmers and ranchers. In 1941, Los Angeles began taking water  from Owens Valley. By 1926, the valley became totally dry. At the time the movie came out, environmentalists were beginning to rally and the Mono Lake Committee sued Los Angeles between 1979 and 1994.

The movie takes place during a drought in 1937, but Los Angeles has grown quite a bit since then and is mostly unwilling to give up lawns, golf courses and washing down driveways with hoses.

Chinatown” is currently available on Netflix.

A more factual account of the California Water Wars can be seen in the seventh episode of Ken Burns’ eight episode documentary “The West.”  Directed by Stephen Ives, the film aired on PBS in September 1996 and covers 1806 to 1914. Episode 7, “The Geography of Hope” covers 1877-1887 and Los Angeles has a separate segment.

Ken Burns also produced a two-part series on “The Dust Bowl.”  This two-part documentary film was directed by Burns and originally broadcast on PBS in 2012 and currently available on Netflix. You might have heard about The Dust Bowl, but the documentary gives your graphic and first-hand witness accounts of this ecological disaster which included a medical phenomena known as dust pneumonia and horrific “weather” occurrences known as black blizzards of dust.

The Dust Bowl” mentions John Steinbeck and his influential 1939 novel “The Grapes of Wrath.” “The Dust Bowl” does imply that Steinbeck was indebted to another writer, Sanora Babb. Her accounts of the drought and depression as well as the immigration of the Okies were shared by her editor Tom Collins with Steinbeck. Babb’s accounts weren’t published until 2004 “Whose Names Are Unknown.”

The West” and “The Dust Bowl” is currently available on Netflix. The 1940 film “The Grapes of Wrath” starred Henry Fonda and was one of the first 25 films chosen for preservation by the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. Jane Darwell (Ma Joad) won a Best Supporting Actress Academy award. Ford won an Oscar for directing.

The Rainmaker” (from a 1954 N. Richard Nash play) looks at the desperation of farming towns in the West although in the 1956 movie, the father seems more worried about his daughter drying up and living an unproductive life than his cattle. The townspeople are grasping at hope, even willing to pay good money to a stranger who claims he can make rain. The story takes place before the tragedy of The Dust Bowl but gives some context to the historical problems the fictional town would eventually face and the kind of hope that farmers had to have.

After seeing “The Dust Bowl,” you can easily move on to the science-fiction world of Frank Herbert and his “Dune” series of novels. The 1965 first novel, “Dune,” was made into a movie in 1984 and into a television miniseries “Frank Herbert’s Dune.”

Dune” was directed by David Lynch and starred Kyle MacLachlan . Roger Ebert wasn’t impressed, calling the movie “a real mess, an incomprehensible, ugly, unstructured, pointless excursion into the murkier realms of one of the most confusing screenplays of all time.”  Gene Siskel wasn’t impressed either, making it clear “I hated watching this film.”

The three-part mini series fared better receiving an Emmy for cinematography and visual effects.

The film, “Dune,” is available on Amazon Instant.

For a real life desert adventure filtered through Hollywood’s lens, there is “Lawrence of Arabia.” Lisa Nesselson, who reviews for Screen International, recommended this film which was directed by David Lean and stars the impossibly beautiful Peter O’Toole as the titular character. The movie won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. O’Toole was nominated, but lost to Gregory Peck (“To Kill a Mockingbird”).

“Lawrence of Arabia” and “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” were recommend to me by Lisa Nesselson, who reviews for Screen International. 

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” began as a 1927 adventure novel and was adapted into a movie in 1948.  The John Huston wrote and directed the movie which starred Humphrey Bogart and Tim Holt as Americans who join an old-timer (Walter Huston, father of John) in Mexico looking for gold. John Huston won an Academy Award for directing and writing the adapted screenplay.

Scott Jordan Harris, culture blogger for The Daily Telegraph, recommended “Pumzi,” an elegant Kenyan science-fiction short which was written and directed by Wanuri Kahiu. The story is about a museum curator in a post-apocalyptic world where water is so scarce people harvest their own sweat and urine. Nature is dead, but the curator, Asha, asks for permission to go outside to look for life when she plants an old seed in soil she has mysteriously received and the seed germinates. “Pumzi” which means “Breath” in Swahili is in English and was screened at Sundance in 2010.

I haven’t seen “Flow,” but this came highly recommended by Movie Mom, Nell Minow. This 2008 documentary features interviews with water and community activists and won the Grand Jury Award at the Mumbai International Film Festival and the Grand Jury Award for best documentary at the United Nations Film Festival. It looks at the business of privatization of water and the infrastructure that gives priority to profits over water for people and the environment. The movie was also shown at Sundance.

And because we shouldn’t always be grim about serious problems, here are some humorous takes on water and how it matters:

  1. Ice Pirates (1984)
  2.  Hydroriddle (1971)
  3. Rango (2011)

Ice Pirates” was recommended by Peter Sobczynski, contributor to and Magill’s Cinema Annual, who, along with my husband, also recommended “Dune.”  This 1984 science fiction movie stars Robert Urich and features Angelica Huston, Ron Perlman, John Carridine and retired football player John Matuszak.  The film takes place in a future where water is so scarce it is rationed and ice cubes are used as currency. Jason, a pirate leader (Urich), raids an imperial cruiser for the ice and kidnaps a princess.

Hydroriddle” or “Hydrozagadka” was a 1971 TV movie that was recommended by Michal Oleszcyk, film critic and scholar in Poland where he was named Critic of the Year by the Polish Film Institute. According to Oleszcyk, the movie is a “whodunit spoof” about a mysterious professor who threatens to cut off Warsaw’s water supply.

The more recent “Rango” looks at how important water is to a desert town.  The waterline to Las Vegas and Rango help save the town. Nevada and Las Vegas have some of the strictest water conservation ordinances, but they still manage to maintain a few golf courses.

Water is something we all need and today is the day to celebrate water and consider how to best use this precious resource.

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