The Failed Opportunity of FLOW: For Love of Water

Garrett Smith

Garrett Smith is a Davidson sophomore. He graduated first in his class at Burns High School in 2009 and is now interested in neuroscience studies. He currently lives in Polkville, NC. Garrett’s work was produced in Professor Van E. Hillard’s Writing 101: Nothing If Not Critical.

FLOW: For Love of Water is a documentary that film critics generally agree introduces a number of urgent problems occurring worldwide regarding the mismanagement of water.1  One review states that it “calls for engagement wherever one finds oneself.”2 Another finds that “the portrait that ultimately emerges is as upsetting as it should be.”3 The film imparts many ideas highly worthy of the public’s consideration, and it will leave many viewers with lingering concerns for certain issues; however, the film fails to establish a proper and thorough means to achieve its primary goal: arguing for the universal right to clean water for everyone. This failure resides in the film’s lack of extensive elaboration in content; its unstable focus on topics; its often partial presentation of issues, personalities, and situations; and its ubiquitous rhetorical banalities. One or another of these problems mars nearly every foci of the film. Some may consider increased public awareness the film’s primary purpose, but the film seems more precisely to emphasize the necessity of a formal right to clean water, a procedural appeal located in the film’s concluding call to action in its urging the audience to sign a United Nations proposal to grant access to water as a human right.

One of the most often-discussed topics in the film is the effect of pollution on municipal water supplies, especially those in rural locations. The lack of accessible clean water worldwide is a prolific issue; many sources agree that “more than a billion people lack access to drinking water.”4 One unnamed family interviewed in the film stands out as a particularly appropriate example of a group victimized by impure water. The mother of this family presumably died due to some sort of bacterial infection found in the local aboveground water supply, leaving the eldest child of the family (along with what appears to be the father standing behind her) to care for the rest of the family. The example of this family, however, is thrust into the midst of other situations whose causes are ambiguous. As far as can be discerned, no particular agent is to blame for the impure water flowing nearby. It is as if the pathos of this “ideally” dismal state of the family was used to bolster support for an idea that does not directly apply. Here, it is unclear whether the film intends to focus on reversing the pollution from industry or cleaning naturally toxic water–a vital distinction since solutions to these problems can differ substantially.

When the film attributes water pollution specifically to industry, a predictable set of pathetic appeals recurs. At one point in the film, a tranquil shot of a frog in pristine flowing water is followed immediately by a shot of  river of blood, emerging from a slaughterhouse, intensifying the horror of the scene. Most viewers will find thiswater21-150x150 The Failed Opportunity of FLOW: For Love of Water image alarming, made all the more troubling because of its juxtaposition. The bloody water flows partly into Lake Titecaca–a lake whose sacred status is asserted, but left unexplained–which worries bystanders, residents of El Alto, Bolivia. A construction supervisor briefly mentions that the trouble persists because the local residents have no sewage systems, but no more is said on the matter. Could it be that sanitation and sewage management is actually a greater problem than a lack of potable water? The film then rather suddenly directs us away from the bloody lake, and begins its discussion of how Suez (a global water management corporation) has diverted sewage into Lake Titecaca as well–an action that is particularly distressing in light of Suez’s alleged promise to build an $80 million treatment plant in the area. The intercutting of visual and verbal statements–the frog in its natural habitat, followed by a close-up of the bloody pool, followed by a construction worker’s speculation, and closing with an unsupported claim about corporate responsibility–is indicative of a fuzzy logic of consecutive assertion-making throughout the film.  Several reviewers have noticed this flaw. One example:

Unable to maintain a consistent focus, the film flip-flops between America, India, Africa, and other locales with haphazard abandon, its editorial structure geared more toward immediate emotional impact than unimpeachably sound reasoning.5

Furthermore, the film never suggests how the slaughterhouse might decrease its pollutants, or what might happen to the community as a result of the slaughterhouse being closed down; its singular focus is on the dismay of two water rights activists: Maude Barlow and Marcela Olivera.  One wonders why the situation of the slaughterhouse was even included in the film, other than to provoke shock at the sight of bloody water and to casually implicate the Suez corporation. No alternate viewpoints are given from either the owners of the slaughterhouse or the Suez Corporation. Interviews with Suez spokespersons follow this scene, but their comments are focused on other topics, and contribute nothing to the issue at hand, suggesting that they operate more as outrage-inducing “plants” than as participants within a public controversy.

FLOW attempts to make several appeals to both logos and ethos by including numerous statistics and expert testimony. Unfortunately, many of these tactics are unsubstantial due to a lack of detail and thorough analysis. In one instance, Vandana Shiva, a physicist and environmental activist, discusses how, as a result of the green revolution in India, “the crops are actually highly inefficient in water use; they need lots of water to dissolve chemicals, and that means five to ten times more water is used to produce the same amount of food.” Prior to this remark, Shiva states that there are two problems to address, but mentions only this one. Again, no opposing perspectives are offered, and, as with the slaughterhouse dilemma, no discussion regarding the costs of returning to non-green agriculture is offered. Perhaps this change would cause even more health issues for India’s population. Vida’s persuasive potential relies more on the stern decisiveness of her tone rather than the weight of facts presented. These scare tactics advance the film’s agenda, but they do so in a rather insincere way that does not function as rational discourse.

A visual topoi of the earth from space, often presented in environmental discourses, provides a backdrop for the presentation of facts denoting decreased fertility and increased rates of birth defects and cancer in certain areas near agricultural regions. water21-150x150 The Failed Opportunity of FLOW: For Love of WaterBecause the film couples these specific problems (ostensibly resulting from pesticides) with only certain countries or regions rather than with the global populace, a critical viewer may assume that the problems are not universal, and likely have causes specific to each area–likely a particular herbicide/pesticide at use in the corresponding region.  Yet, again, the film fails to discuss the specific causes for the problems in each area, and elides remarks about whether the people in these regions would actually be better off not using herbicides as they currently do. Perhaps they are a necessary evil to support the food demands of their populations, or perhaps these regions (of Mexico and Tasmania) were using obsolete herbicides/pesticides. Herbicides and pesticides are discussed holistically, with the exception of Atrizine, and nothing is said about the benefits of effective herbicide use. In this example and others, FLOW tends either to misrepresent counterfacts, or to omit counterclaims altogether.

The reinforcement of personae is integral to the strategy of the film as well, whether these personae are misleading and inaccurate, or not. Personae are used to create contrast between good and evil, crookedness and trustworthiness, poverty and wealth. A telling example of this occurs shortly after the slaughterhouse scene, when the CEO of the Suez Corporation and Charles-Louis de Maud’huy, a representative from Vivendi, another water management corporation, are shown briefly describing the functions of their companies. De Maud’huy’s segment consists entirely of a shot of him grinning in response to an unheard question by the interviewer. But this shot is made to seem a response to a previous sequence regarding a water catastrophe involving–even more troublingly–some other water management corporation. Such intercutting–the transfer of agency from one context to another, the imputing of cause and effect across domains of activity, the suggestion of narrative continuity across non-contingent circumstances–represents the kind of argumentative fallacy that documentary, if it is to avoid propagandistic charges, must navigate past. Only at a few points in the film is a corporate representative permitted brief input on the issue at hand, and these moments are clouded by bias. Maude Barlow, author of Blue Gold, the environmentalist document to which the film regularly refers, accompanies a group of disgruntled persons to confront an authority (presumably from Suez). As Barlow and her unnamed companion lambaste the representative, his is allowed no chance to respond to them. One can imagine the apprehension faced by this man, surrounded by cameras and an indignant crowd. He comes off like a comic book villain, goaded by the hero to flee in his getaway vehicle. This person is never provided his fair share of time to respond to charges. No representatives from any of the corporations are allowed the opportunity to their accusers.

FLOW focuses relentlessly on the emotions of urgency and fear, themes common to the presentation of pollution, water privatization, and water shortage in general.

Salina turns to various persons figured as authorities to build support for the film’s agenda. For example, Siddharaj Dhadda, a Ghandian leader, sits on a mat reading from an American Indian document detailing the perceived strangeness of the concept of ownership of land or water. She juxtaposes his dialogue with sweeping images of barren wastelands that result from heavy industrial operations–another visual topoi often deployed in environmentalist documentaries.  His dialogue itself does little to enhance the discussion of whether water should be available by some means to all, but rather, his persona of a wise, Ghandi-esque elder is apparently persuasive in its own right, implying that disagreement would disrupt a shared ethos of non-violence. Such an exploitation of a persona tests and troubles the film’s credibility.

FLOW focuses relentlessly on the emotions of urgency and fear, themes common to the presentation of pollution, water privatization, and water shortage in general. In one scene, William Marks, author of The Holy Order of Water,  finds that scientists recognize that “we are on the brink of the sixth great mass extinction ever to be experienced on the face of the earth.” The film’s most-often consulted activist, Maude Barlow, reaffirms this claim by going so far as to compare the problem to a comet on crash course with earth. The management of this problem in the film, however, is puzzling. If the problem is even mildly analogous to a comet strong enough to destroy all of humanity, then why are only about two minutes of the documentary spent addressing this brute fact? If the problem is truly as severe as the film purports it to be, then it would easily trump all of the other problems mentioned. If there were to be no water at all, then there would also be no water to pollute, privatize, bottle, or exploit in any way. Overstatement–or, more exactly, overt catastrophizing–detracts from the film’s reasoning, even while it helps to manufacture alarm.

Recently, the World Health Organization offered the following fact, implying that the problem with clean water distribution is not quite as severe as is asserted in FLOW: “With 87% of the world’s population or approximately 5.9 billion people using safe drinking-water sources, the world is on track to meet or even exceed the drinking-water target of the Millenium Development Goals.”6 The film barely mentions the world’s sanitation problems. It also seems that the issue of water shortage would be more salient to Western viewers (even the United States experiences droughts), so it would make sense for the film to target this issue. However, it does not.

Peter H. Gleick, president and co-founder of the Pacific Institute, also appears in the film amidst claims of imminent apocalypse, but implies that climate change is the cause of the water shortage. This attribution attests, once again, to the film’s inability to remain focused on a specific issue long enough to represent meaningful discussion. The film’s foci diverge to the point of being nearly incomprehensible. Climate change is an issue that could be, and has been, discussed in documentary form. The constant shifts in emphasis may stimulate viewers’ attentions, but the approach accomplishes little in unearthing the complexities of the issues, or identifying the ways in which humanity’s water woes might be ameliorated. This flurry of information, however, also hinders a viewer’s ability to analyze the film critically, thereby stimulating a brand of simplistic persuasion.

The film ambitiously covers too many topics, so many in fact any coherent practical proposal is muffled by feelings of fear, anger, and impending doom. One might surely become persuaded never again to purchase bottled water, but as far as knowing how to assist people in developing countries beyond simply signing a petition, the film offers few suggestions. Issues are raised, dropped, and repeated acontextually, and almost always given incomplete attention. What happened to the Coca-Cola factory after it moved out of Plachimada, India, one wonders? Did it just move to another village to cause the same problem? The U.N. petition that stands in for abiding, practical policy suggestions is also mismanaged. What exactly differentiates it from the highly-criticized solutions of the World Bank?

The film’s goal–whether ethical and political, or mainly to promote awareness–is noble, so far as it goes, yet is delimited by flawed, and at times bewildering, reasoning. Shocking images and inspiriting personalities are overused for their emotional punch rather than their authoritative insight. Such exploitation of emotion seems to have infected the art of documentary filmmaking of late, making it difficult, but necessary, for audiences to separate influence from reasonable persuasion.


 “Access to Safe Drinking Water Improving: Santiation Needs Greater Efforts.” World Health Organization. March 15, 2010. http://www.who/int/mediacentre/news/releases/2010/water_20100315/en/index.html. (accessed March 28, 2010).

Croce, Fernando. “FLOW: For Love of Water.” Slant Magazine, September 4, 2008. (accessed March 25, 2010).

Feldman, Shelly. “Drowned Out.” Visual Anthropology. 23 (2010): 55-58.

Salina, Irena. FLOW: For Love of Wateer. DVD. New York: Oscilloscope Pictures, 2008.

Schager, Nick. “FLOW: For Love of Water.” Cinematical. September 12, 2008. (accessed March 26, 2010).

Specter, Michael. “The Last Drop.” New Yorker, October 23, 2006. (accessed March 28m 2010).


  1. I would like to offer my thanks to my peer reviewers: Taylor Whitsett, Megan Spanjers, Supriya Wadhwa, and Laura Lamboley. []
  2. Shelly Feldman, “Drowned Out,” Visual Anthropology 23 (2010): 55. []
  3. Fernando Croce, “FLOW: For Love of Water.” Slant Magazine, September 4, 2008 (accessed March 25, 2010). []
  4. Michael Specter, “The Last Drop,” The New Yorker, October 23, 2006 (accessed March 28, 2010). []
  5. Nick Schager, “FLOW: For Love of Water,” Cinematical, September 12, 2008 (accessed March 26, 2010). []
  6. World Health Organization, “Access to Safe Drinking Water Improving; Sanitation Needs Greater Efforts.” March 15, 2010. (accessed March 28, 2010). []