'What Lies Upstream': Film Review

What Lies Upstream Still - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Hyrax Films
An urgent, lucidly argued wake-up call.

A chemical spill in West Virginia is the tip of the contaminated iceberg in Cullen Hoback’s investigative documentary.

In early 2014, the residents of Charleston, West Virginia, were lucky — to use the word advisedly — that one of the chemicals that leaked into their water supply had a strong odor. Otherwise, as What Lies Upstream illuminates in eye-opening detail, they might never have known that their tap water wasn’t safe to use.

As in his superb 2013 documentary Terms and Conditions May Apply, director Cullen Hoback looks beneath an everyday aspect of life that we take for granted. In the case of the earlier film, the subject was the privacy rights we routinely and unknowingly trade away in the digital age; in Upstream, he examines the shocking lack of meaningful oversight for the water we drink, cook with and bathe in. The essence of both cases is the unholy alliance between corporate and government interests and its effect on unsuspecting citizens.

Opening in New York and Los Angeles a few days before its DVD/digital release by Gravitas Ventures, this quietly chilling wake-up call is sure to be one of the most vital docs to hit theaters in 2018.

The area affected by the spill is one that Hoback is familiar with from idyllic childhood visits to a beloved relative. Charleston is located in a swath of coal country known as Chemical Valley, and MCHM, the substance that leaked into the Elk River, is a detergent for coal. The source of the spill was a rusting tank at a facility owned by the Orwellian-named chemical company Freedom Industries, upstream from the intake center of the patriotically named West Virginia American Water.

Hoback is there during the days of emergency: the run on bottled water and ice at local markets, the anguished community meetings — in mining communities already decimated by coal-related cancers — and the glaring lack of answers from officials. Digging into documents and speaking with officeholders and scientists, Hoback learns that Eastman Chemical Company, the producer of MCHM, has only the sketchiest of data on the substance’s effects on humans. That makes the sudden about-face by industry and government, and their assurances that the still-stinking H2O is potable (with a vague warning to pregnant women), all the more disturbing.

At first, the writer-director’s onscreen presence feels like an unnecessary distraction, and it could certainly be pared down. But as his interviews push deeper into the situation — and its overlap with the water crisis in Flint, Michigan — his investigative methods and congenial manner of confrontation prove productive, the results compelling and revelatory.

In his quick-moving, quietly insistent way, Hoback slips into a room that the public would never otherwise enter, and he and DP Vincent Sweeney provide an extraordinary glimpse of a matter-of-fact meeting in the West Virginia capitol a year after the Charleston spill: Lobbyists for gas, oil and coal interests fine-tune a piece of state legislation that guts the previous year’s relatively stringent health- and safety-minded regulations. Hoback’s conversation with the sponsor of the bill is a jaw-dropping illustration of big business pulling the governmental strings.

The filmmaker’s journalistic relationships with two key officials in the saga play out in surprising ways, the men’s shifting stances on regulation offering insights into self-interest, compliance, the mechanics of power and the mysteries of personality. When Hoback first meets Dr. Rahul Gupta, head of the local health department, Gupta is the lone official raising questions about the health impact of MCHM. Beside him on a panel at a meeting for concerned residents, Erin Brockovich sings his praises. Later, having advanced through government ranks, his consumer advocacy startlingly gives way to doublespeak.

At the other end of the spectrum, Randy Huffman, the head of West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection, enters the story as a pro-business, anti–Clean Water Act chucklehead of a bureaucrat. And yet his good-natured transparency about how little he knows evolves into an unexpected awakening and renewed sense of responsibility.

On the river itself and around the country, Hoback pushes on, engaging with whistleblowers and experts to elucidate old reports and conduct new research. Scientists speak of cover-ups and fabricated data from the CDC and the EPA. “Who’s going to look for something that they don’t want to find?” one scientist comments. A central whistleblower in the Flint fiasco speaks of the effect of such falsified evidence on the public’s trust in science, warning of “a new dark age.” Cue footage of the confirmation hearings for Scott Pruitt as EPA chief.

With commendable patience, energy and ingenuity, Hoback makes it urgently clear that water crises like those in Charleston and Flint aren’t isolated events. Industry’s disregard for natural resources except as revenue generators has long been alarming, and What Lies Upstream would be necessary viewing at any time. In the Trump era of aggressive dismantling of environmental and health protections, it couldn’t be more crucial.

Production company: Hyrax Films
Distributor: Hyrax Films/The Film Collaborative
Cullen Hoback
Producers: John Ramos, Cullen Hoback, Nitin Khanna
Executive producers:
Nitin Khanna, Karan Khanna, Jaswinder Grover, Jay Walia
Director of photography:
Vincent Sweeney
Music: John Morgan Askew
Editor: Cullen Hoback

85 minutes