'Water & Power: A California Heist': Film Review | Sundance 2017

A less lively exposé than this important subject deserves.

Director Marina Zenovich shifts gears from Roman Polanski and Richard Pryor to public water rights in her new doc.

Documentarian Marina Zenovich, whose most prominent films to date — Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired and Roman Polanski: Odd Man Out — have both revolved around the director of Chinatown, seemingly takes inspiration from Jake Gittes' noir investigation of water-rights conspiracies in this left-turn from celeb-oriented docs to enviro-political ones. In Water & Power: A California Heist, Zenovich tackles a subject of enormous importance, but fails to match that import with dramatic storytelling. The often dry film about water rights is appropriate for the National Geographic network, but is unlikely to connect with many viewers who don't already have some knowledge of the subject.

The doc begins by wondering how it is that, during a period of historic drought and water rationing in the state, profits soared for some California mega-farmers. The answer lies in "the Monterey Amendments," a 1994 deal made, as the film has it, under shady conditions that left a tremendous fraction of the state's water supply controlled by a single county, Kern. The resulting Kern Water Bank, an underground reservoir, was controlled by a single corporation, and funneled cheap water to farms run by Stewart and Lynda Resnick, who made a fortune on water-intensive crops like almonds and pistachios.

The state gave the Resnicks a huge gift, according to journalists like Mark Arax and John Gibler, and then the Kern bank sold water back to the state at three or four times what they'd paid. These investigators flesh out many of this story's details, and visit places like Lost Hills, the company town where Kern's farm workers have lived in third-world conditions, paying for undrinkable water just yards from their bosses' lushly irrigated fields.

While stoking anger with these and other specifics, the movie also looks to the future, expanding on the commonly held fear that water will become an increasing source of conflict worldwide. Zenovich looks at Enron-like markets that move water rights to the richest buyers, and speculates about how corporations are buying wineries in California not because they want to sell wine, but as a way of controlling a resource that's becoming scarcer every year. Still, the doc's handling of years-long legal fights and complicated regulations sometimes makes watching it a bore — which is good news for the billionaires who have lawyers to wade through legalese and exploit working-class Californians.

Distributor: National Geographic
Production company: Jigsaw
Director: Marina Zenovich
Producer: Ted Gesing
Executive producers: Alex Gibney, Lynne Kirby, Stacey Offman, Erica Sashin, Marina Zenovich, Kevin Tao Mohs, Tim Pastore
Directors of photography: Sam Painter, Thorsten Thielow
Editors: Pax Wassermann, Aaron YanesComposer: Justin Melland
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)

87 minutes