'There's Something in the Water': Film Review | TIFF 2019

Courtesy of TIFF
Gives us plenty to drink in.

Ellen Page co-directed this call-to-arms documentary about discrimination and pollution in her native Nova Scotia.

The term “environmental racism” may be unfamiliar to many of us, but it pretty much means what it says: the discrimination of minorities by subjecting them to toxic levels of pollution, often by building factories or waste sites near their communities.

In the activist documentary There’s Something in the Water, actress Ellen Page and producer Ian Daniel — who together created the docu series Gaycation — chronicle several alarming instances of such racism in Page’s native Nova Scotia. For those who have never heard of these cases, this short and very to-the-point exposé can be an eye-opening experience, especially as it is set in country we tend to idealize for its wholesomeness.

Indeed, the 70-minute film kicks off with Kodachrome footage of Canada’s glowing waters, presenting the idealized land of Page’s youth. “The picture-perfect image I had of my province began to crack,” the actress goes on to explain, revealing a map that disturbingly shows how minorities — in this instance blacks and First Nations peoples — across the territory often live right next door to major centers of pollution.

The title of the documentary comes from a book by Canadian sociology professor Ingrid Waldron that used Nova Scotia as a case study, and the filmmakers illustrate her thesis by visiting some of the province’s major disaster areas. (Like the book, the movie limits its reach to only one province, though it would have been interesting to see cases beyond Nova Scotia that underline how this is a worldwide phenomenon.)

What Page and Daniel capture is appalling: In Shelbourne, which once boasted the highest population of freed black people in North America, the installation of a dump in the 1940s has contaminated the drinking water and caused cancer rates to skyrocket. In Pictou Landing, a paper mill built in the 1960s has destroyed a lake that was used for centuries by the indigenous Mi’kmaw people, causing premature deaths that have decimated whole families. And north of Halifax, a First Nations protest group known as the “grassroots grandmothers” is attempting to block the creation of a massive natural gas storage facility that will contaminate their local river.

It’s telling that Waldron and all the other activists presented are women, which may be because many of the men from the community have been killed off by the very cancer being spread after decades of unchecked pollution. Either way, these grandmothers, mothers or just plain-old female protestors seem to be the only ones standing up to the powers-that-be, represented here by Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (who artfully dodges a question in one scene) and corporate cronies claiming their factories will do no harm to others.

Made in a standard documentary format that includes a voiceover and a tad too much weepy music, Water gets its job done directly enough, underlining a situation that remains dire despite what seems to be a growing level awareness around the country. The outspoken Page takes centerstage at the start, showing a clip from her appearance on The Late Show and even tossing in a few of her baby photos. But she quickly steps aside to allow all of the activists their say, and they tell their stories in ways that are both informative and moving. 

If the majority of There’s Something in the Water consists of talking heads, a few images from the film (camerawork is by Page and Daniel) stick to your retina — most of all, that of the furiously polluted Boat Harbour, which now needs to be artificially oxygenated in order to remain viable and looks like some sort of bubbling, Boschian wasteland from hell. O, Canada.

Production company: 2 Weeks Notice
Directors: Ellen Page, Ian Daniel
Producers: Ellen Page, Ian Daniel, Ingrid Waldron, Julia Sanderson
Executive producers: Xavier Coleman, Hugo Perez
Directors of photography: Ellen Page, Ian Daniel
Editors: Xavier Coleman, Hugo Perez

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF Docs)
Sales: 2 Weeks Notice

70 minutes