Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock may be responsible for making documentaries more popular, profitable and mainstream-accessible, but from an artistic point of view, their influence has been far less enriching. The rise in cutesy graphics, the preference for superficial contentions conveyed by cursory human-interest vignettes, and the employment of spurious causation arguments have become the norm in domestic non-fiction filmmaking, with only the rare exception -- anything by Werner Herzog, Tony Kaye's in-depth Lake of Fire -- to remind viewers that serious, comprehensive explorations of real-world stories and topics are still viable. Alas, the latest politically conscious doc to hit stateside, Irena Salina's Flow: For Love of Water, is another example of the -Moore-ish technique, not because it mimics his aesthetic -- her approach and tone are of a sober, graphics-free sort -- but because it tackles an important topic in a dubious manner. Jumping back and forth between various issues, facts and local news stories as if in search of a coherent thesis, the director offers up a call-to-arms against bottled water conglomerates that, in its structural sloppiness, feels like a high school student's tossed-off research paper.
Salina's film starts with the contention that global fresh water supplies are dwindling, as well as the consequent belief that we're fast approaching a critical juncture at which time H2O will become as valuable as any national resource in the world. In fact, Flow makes the claim that water is already extremely valuable, since bottled water -- which is taken out of the ground by multinational corporations like Suez and Vivendi at almost no cost, and then sold back to consumers at an exorbitant price -- is at present a $22 billion-a-year industry. Americans alone spend a whopping $9 billion a year on bottled water, a figure Salina's film claims is more than the amount necessary to provide clean water to every citizen of every country, and that profit has driven Suez, Vivendi and Nestle (among other, lesser players) to scour the planet for viable water sources they can privatize and then plunder, largely free from regulation. According to the director, such a business practice has left many, mostly poor communities deficient in clean water, which in turn frequently forces those residents to buy their own water back from companies at a high price, and with little to no improvement in quality.
Flow exudes righteous indignation, but time and again its methods impede its forcefulness. Unable to maintain a consistent focus, the film flip-flops between America, India, Africa and other locales with haphazard abandon, its editorial structure geared more toward immediate emotional impact than unimpeachably sound reasoning. Thus, many stories, such as one in which Coca-Cola's presence in an Indian village led to the disappearance of uncontaminated water, are affecting on their own but aren't convincingly incorporated into a larger, piercing argument. When a talking-head contends that bottled water is often no different than regular tap water, anger invariably swells in one's chest, but Salina quickly diffuses this assertion's effectiveness by cutting away to a clip from Punk'd in which unsuspecting diners are served water from a garden hose, told that it's imported H20, and then seen discussing the merits of their supposedly chic beverages. This isn't to say that bottled water isn't tap water; rather, it's simply to state that if one's main piece of evidence is a stunt from an Ashton Kutcher MTV hidden-camera reality show, maybe the evidence for this claim isn't as airtight as it needs to be.
By film's conclusion, Salina's prime thrust turns out to be that multinationals involved in the water business -- whether it be selling bottled water to mass consumers, or infiltrating third-world countries with the aim of selling clean water to desperate people -- greedily value profits more than the public good. On the surface, it's a reasonable jumping-off point. Yet Flow mistakenly assumes that quantity trumps quality. Ominous facts and figures, dire comments from activist authors of water-crisis books, random tales of woe from various international neighborhoods, and some heartening instances of homegrown solutions to water contamination and shortages all factor into the doc, but its attack on privatization and pollution is made in such a clunky, distracted way that it's difficult to buy what's being sold. Enraging from time to time, Salina's film wants to be An Inconvenient Truth for water, a blistering examination of our current state of affairs as well as an urgent plea for change. However, providing analysis that's sketchy, shambling and far less thorough than is called for, Flow doesn't, unfortunately, live up to its title.