Waterlife (July 3-5)

Disaster Lakes

Documentary shows perils facing the Great Lakes

Waterlife, narrated by the Tragically Hip's Gord Downie, exposes the perils facing the Great Lakes.

Waterlife, narrated by the Tragically Hip’s Gord Downie, exposes the perils facing the Great Lakes.


Directed & written by: Kevin McMahon

Narrated by: Gord Downie

Rating: G, disturbing images

Playing at: Mayfair Theatre, today through to July 5

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The good news in Waterlife, a documentary about what’s happening to the Great Lakes (in a word: disaster) is that there is still wondrous beauty, sparkling vistas and even the occasional fish, although you may not want to eat it. The bad news is everything else.

Waterlife was made by Kevin McMahon, a documentary filmmaker who once worked as a newspaper reporter covering the Love Canal scandal, which is part of the bigger story: the largest supply of fresh water in the world, five lakes that supply drinking water to 35 million people, is a soup of chemicals, waste, invasive zebra mussels, fish-killing lamprey, bizarre Asian carp and a pharmacopoeia of drugs, including antidepressants. You may need them.

McMahon traces water from the head of Lake Superior down through the lakes to the mouth of the St. Lawrence where, we’re told at the beginning of the film, the beluga whale might be the most contaminated marine mammal on the planet: a quarter of the males are dying of cancer.

Why? The answers lie on the shores of Superior (paper plants); Michigan (Chicago dumps its waste into its river, then installed a system to shuttle what narrator Gord Downie calls “the city’s poop” down the Mississippi; coming the other way are Asian carp, aggressive fish that leap right out of the water at you); Huron, where zebra mussels in one year took over the entire ecosystem; “sad old Lake Erie,” where estrogen in the water is turning male frogs into female frogs and where one town has two girls being born for every boy; a brief side trip to Lake St. Claire, where we meet a man whose lakeside house is now a weed-side house thanks to dropping water levels; and on to Ontario, into which water pours over Niagara Falls and past the Love Canal, where there are at least 200 toxic waste sites where industry dumped its deadly effluent.

It’s not a pretty picture, although Waterlife has a hip soundtrack and soaring visuals not usually associated with such ecological shots across the bow. We get bird’s-eye views of the lakes, and fish-eye views of the various sludge, pollutants and deadly interlopers within them. Children play happily in slow motion in swimming pools and water sprinklers and pregnant women bathe themselves in life-giving water; meanwhile, we’ve seen dead birds on beaches and the plastic tampon inserters and used condoms that float through the sewage treatment plant at Windsor, Ont. They’re easy to take out, as it happens: PCBs and other chemicals survive the treatment and are probably in that glass of whatever it is you’re drinking right now.

Waterlife is more about the big picture than the details. The film doesn’t identify its subjects and a lot of the voice-over information about dangers and government inaction comes without any citation or exact figures. We see photographs of children who have scarred skin from standing on beaches polluted with toxic algae, for instance, but we don’t know how many of these there are, or when it started, or how much worse it is getting.

Maybe we don’t have to know. Waterlife — which won a special jury prize at this year’s Hot Docs festival — is disturbing enough and there aren’t many signs of optimism. The one we come back to is a woman from the Anishinabe tribe who is walking around the 17,000-kilometre shoreline of the Great Lakes in a gesture of healing. By the end of the movie, she seems like our best hope.

For Jay Stone’s weekly movie podcast, go to www.canada.com/moviereviews.

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