It's tempting to glibly dismiss "Flow: For Love of Water" as this week's entry in the Environmental Apocalypse agit-doc genre. Like "An Inconvenient Truth," "The Unforeseen," and other recent documentaries, it wants to terrify us into action, in this case over the privatization of and misuse of our planet's water supply. Like many of those films, "Flow" preaches to the choir with a starry-eyed NPR eco-humanism that can set the wrong kind of person's teeth on edge. For instance: Can we have a moratorium on quotes from wise Native American chieftains on how the earth belongs to all of us? Facts will do just fine, thanks.
When filmmaker Irena Salina does marshal the facts, "Flow" is an eye-opening, troubling 90 minutes that makes us think twice about an element we take for granted. Turn on the tap, out comes the water, and it belongs to everyone, right? Not in countries where the natural water table has been ruined by industrial development and big agriculture. There, governments have been pressured to contract with Europe-based corporations like Suezand Vivendi, who charge the poor for tap water and whose product isn't nearly as pure as they promise.
The larger message - that the earth is headed for a crisis of unparalleled proportions as rivers dry up and drinkable water supplies dwindle - is sobering, and the film's discussion of water problems in the United States is even more so. Here the issues aren't scarcity and control but contamination and lack of oversight, as a nation flushes its industrial chemicals and prescription medications into the water table. If that unsettles you, eat some of the Texas fish whose tissues are infused with Prozac.
Worried and unfocused, "Flow" spreads its arguments around, taking on the evils of dams and bottled water, the strong-arm tactics of
She's no Michael Moore either, even though she tries in one wan skit featuring magician/prankster Penn Jillette selling ersatz bottled water to unsuspecting restaurant patrons (the whole segment feels staged). Nor is the movie's case helped by random clips from "The Third Man" or the-sky-is-falling pronouncements of author William Marks ("The Holy Order of Water"), who warns we're on the verge of another mass extinction. Maybe he's right but on camera he comes across as a paranoid crank.
During the closing credits, "Flow" depicts smaller conservation initiatives like playground pumps in Africa and rainwater collection in Texas. Suddenly, the movie's missed opportunities crystallize. Salina has spent so much time showing us what mega-corporations are doing wrong that she neglects to show us what what some people are doing right, and what the rest of us can do to help.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.