Pre-College Programs

Global Water Issues Education

From the Leadership Institute Symposium on Social Change

Author: Luke Dorfman

Almost 900 million people worldwide—one out of every six people—do not have access to safe drinking water, and a total of 2.6 billion people—two out of every six people—do not have access to basic sanitation. The crisis is going to get worse. Growing populations need increasing freshwater supplies for drinking, hygiene, sanitation, food production and industry. Climate change, meanwhile, is likely to make the availability of freshwater resources more unpredictable. Policy makers need to figure out how to supply water without degrading the natural ecosystems that provide it. Governments at all levels need to set policies and make investments in infrastructure for water conservation now. There needs to be a new mindset, a new way of thinking about water. Everyone has a role to play in tackling the water crisis.

My Action Plan aimed to educate others on local and global water issues. In setting goals, I considered the content of my message and the audience I am able to target. The two were inextricably linked. To reach as many people as possible, I decided to create a documentary on water issues. By creating a documentary, I planned to draw upon the knowledge and skills I developed at the Brown Leadership Institute on Documentary Filmmaking for Social Change. While YouTube offers an opportunity to reach a wide audience, I decided to focus on a closer audience – people in Vermont, the state in which I live. In this way, I could be physically present at any showing of my film and be involved in discussions on water issues prompted by the viewing of the film. An obvious audience would be my school community, particularly the schools’ Amnesty International Group, and the broader community of residents in the school district. I was even more ambitious. I planned to submit my movie to the Vermont International Film Festival that takes place in Burlington, Vermont every October. Given the local make-up of the audience, I intended to create a documentary that sheds light on water issues that exist in the state. In this way, the audience would be able to identify ways they might effect change themselves. However, I was also determined to broaden the scope of the documentary by drawing comparisons between water issues in Vermont and those that exist in other parts of the world. By drawing attention to the global crisis, I hoped to bring home the message that water and sanitation were recently declared a human right by the U.N. and that, for both ethical and pragmatic reasons, we all should be concerned about the global inequalities that exist when it comes to water and sanitation access.

Over the past few months I have been researching the topic of my documentary, identifying and utilizing resources in the local community, conducting interviews and shooting film on location. For technical advice on documentary filmmaking, I contacted Mira Niagolova, a well-known and well-respected independent documentary filmmaker living in Essex, Vermont. Her films are dedicated to the telling of local and global social issues, making Mira an ideal filmmaker with whom to discuss my aspiring project. I met with her on several occasions this past fall and winter to discuss documentary ideas and to seek advice. Like the professors at Brown, she stressed the importance of a story: “With a story to tell, anything is possible. A documentary is about sharing that story, exposing a reality. The high-tech equipment is helpful, but not important.”

For technological resources, I contacted the Vermont Community Access Media (VCAM). VCAM is a non-profit community media and technology center located in the south end of Burlington, Vermont. Its mission is to foster free speech and public dialog by providing easy access to the electronic media to all citizens of the VCAM service area on a nondiscriminatory basis for nonprofit and noncommercial purposes. VCAM operates both a public access and a government access cable channel, and provides equipment and facility rentals to any VCAM user for any noncommercial purpose, free of charge. Last summer, I attended an introductory workshop, and signed up as a member of VCAM. During the summer and winter school vacations, I loaned equipment to shoot film at numerous water locations sites across the state and to use for conducting interviews for the film. In the future, I may utilize VCAM’s editing equipment and expertise. Upon completion of my documentary, I shall make it available to VCAM for transmission over their public TV channel.

Since last summer, I have spent considerable time researching the topic of water. To achieve an authentic viewpoint on the issue, it was important to gather as much background information as possible. Research did not just consist of reading books and conducting Internet searches. I also identified prospective interviewees for my documentary. A particularly useful contact was Ann Pugh, a member of the Vermont State legislature, who recommended several prominent water experts in Vermont. In the fall, I contacted the Vermont Natural Resource Council in Montpelier with the intention of interviewing its experts on Vermont water issues. An interview date was set, but an unfortunate injury incurred during a varsity soccer game led to an operation on my hand, which prevented me from operating a camera. The interview was postponed until the winter school vacation. I arranged an interview with Kim Greenwood, VNRC’s resident water scientist. My initial contact with Kim was by email. She gave a brief synopsis of water issues, and I used that to create a list of potential questions, which I passed on to her before the interview took place. Finally, I traveled down to Montpelier. Kim proved to be an excellent interviewee, sharing her detailed knowledge of Vermont’s local water resources and of the global water crisis. I plan to conduct more interviews once I graduate from high school.

Over the summer, I collected footage of water sources from around the Chittenden County to use as B-roll film. Trekking through woods, over hills and across swamps to find photogenic spots to film proved to be time-consuming—and drenching! Waiting for the sunlight to cast shadows; for wind to die down; for the drone of distant planes to cease; for a solitary gray stork to suddenly flap its wings and take off from a lake at dusk, only to return a few moments later with its mate; all this required time and demanded patience. Hours of such footage will probably yield only a few minutes of film, with the remainder to be left on the editing room floor.

There are some locations I still have to cover. A key one is Vermont Yankee, from which tritium, a low-level radioactive by-product of the nuclear plant has leaked into groundwater. I am anticipating many hours of filming ahead.

The story of my film has yet to emerge. I am still gathering the pieces of the puzzle. Originally I had anticipated the film to be complete by this spring, but life has gotten in the way. School commitments, fractured fingers, college applications and a varsity soccer schedule have slowed the film process down. Now, my goal is much more realistic: to complete the film over this coming summer.

Despite setbacks, I do have some achievements to report. At my school, I screened the film Fre$h, which I had co-produced at the Brown Leadership Institute, and I took this opportunity to talk about inequalities of access to water, sanitation, and organic produce. In my school’s Amnesty International group, I have talked about organizing actions to raise awareness of human rights violations around the world, with a focus on water and sanitation rights. So, while my action plan is not completed, I have taken the opportunity to raise awareness of water issues as I move through the process of my Action Plan. Fellow students now know that water and sanitation are human rights, even though they have yet to view my documentary.

The project has taught me quite a lot about myself. I have discovered I have many of the attributes required of a filmmaker. I am a good listener. I have learned to overcome my natural shyness, and simply listen to what people have to say: to hear their words rather than worry about what I must ask them. I am no longer self-conscious when setting up my camera, but I have the patience to stand and wait for the right shot. I am looking forward to hitting the editing room. At Brown, I spent many hours with my co-producers in the multimedia lab, refining and changing our clips. That is what the editing process is all about: experimenting. I was fascinated by the way simply adjusting the order of certain clips can alter the audience’s interpretation. I am looking forward to that part of the process. I will be conscious of not wanting to misinterpret the views of the people I interview. As a documentary filmmaker, I have the responsibility to act in an authentic and ethical manner.

Working as part of a team in an intense fashion for two-weeks at Brown was very productive: my fellow filmmakers and I helped to motivate each other in our quest to complete a film. I have discovered it is harder to keep motivated when the project is one of many commitments, and when I do not have the team to bolster me along. Nevertheless, I am committed to the project. What drives me is my passion to make positive social change, my desire for human rights, and my eagerness to learn and raise awareness of social issues. The project may take time to complete, but it shall be done, and I look forward to screening my film so that others may be inspired to bring about change in our world, too.

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