Oscar-nominated actress Ellen Page reveals a darker side of her home province in “There’s Something in the Water,” a documentary on “environmental racism” in Nova Scotia, Canada.
Page co-wrote, co-directed (with her “Gaycation” collaborator, Ian Daniel) and narrates. Based on social scientist Ingrid R. G. Waldron’s book, the film looks at three largely nonwhite communities struggling with environmental disasters caused or threatened by industry or governmental neglect.
The main claims are plausible — severe cancer clusters surround a decades-old dump, massive fish die-offs are linked to factory runoff, an underground gas storage plan might destroy a waterway. However, the filmmakers fail to provide data. One activist refers to tests of wells, but we don’t learn about the results apart from a passing reference to certain harmful bacteria. We’re never told what runoff chemicals are causing problems or what their concentrations are.
The film gives a platform to women of color on the front lines of resistance to these disastrous environmental impacts. Some interviews can be emotional and disturbing, as when one activist enumerates those in a family portrait who have died of cancer, then drives through her neighborhood, listing those who’ve contracted cancer. But while several of these women must have facts and figures at the ready, we never hear or see them.
There are no onscreen graphics explaining the effects of chemicals or providing statistical data of the cancer clusters. In focusing on these determined activists, the film declines to interview scientists and doctors. Instead, it allows subjects to make unchallenged claims such as, “One day, an ounce of water will cost more than an ounce of gold.”
What results is an emotional appeal that highlights a grave problem but doesn’t give the viewer the scientific, factual foundation to be completely convinced. The film also doesn’t offer solutions.
One activist is shown talking over Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau; her group then criticizes the related legislation he supports, without detailing its problems. A legislative analyst or environmental lawyer’s input might have helped here. Cinematically, it feels slow and is not helped by the moody piano tinkling of its score.
“There’s Something” also doesn’t sufficiently support the very notion of “environmental racism” (as opposed to the victimization of any community without economic or political power, regardless of race or ethnicity). Perhaps its 73-minute running time is a detriment, as its focus on its subjects doesn’t seem to allow room for the objective evidence that would have bolstered its case.
Stick around after the final narration for updates that move the stories forward.
Running time: 1 hour, 13 minutes
Playing: Available on Netflix