Irena Salina, Flow
There are many paths to cinematic success, some of them direct, some of them not, and it is fair to say that Irena Salina has taken a more meandering route than some to reach her current position. Born in Paris in the wake of May ’68, she grew up in a theatrical family (her uncle was the late, great French actor Philippe Noiret) and initially aspired to becoming an actress. When her adolescence was disrupted by her parents’ divorce, she chose to drop out of school and became a radio reporter at the age of just 15. After a stint in television, she moved to New York where she got a taste of the movies by working meager jobs on Hollywood productions as well as taking the occasional acting role, such as in Abel Ferrara’s King of New York. Realizing her future lay behind the camera not in front of it, Salina wrote and directed her first short film, the darkly humorous romantic comedy See You On Monday, in the late 90s. She made her feature debut with Ghost Bird: The Life and Art of Judith Deim (2000), a documentary portrait of the eponymous St Louis artist who counted John Steinbeck and Federico García Lorca among her friends.
Salina’s sophomore film, Flow is a documentary that tackles the question “Can anyone really own water?” and looks at a deteriorating global situation in which multinationals are wresting control of the world’s water from the people whose land it runs through, and then trying to sell it back to them. However, more than just pointing the finger at the companies at fault or cataloging the ways in which our planet’s water is being polluted, Salina’s film provides examples of people who are countering the impending water crisis and fighting for what is rightfully theirs. Rather than making Flow a downbeat affair, Salina mixes the shocking statistics and exposés of unscrupulous corporate conduct with portraits of compelling and inspirational figures such as Rajendra Singh, the activist who has reintroduced rain harvesting to India and in the process turned numerous drought-stricken areas into lush oases.
Filmmaker spoke to Salina about activist filmmaking, falling foul of Nestlé, and working for the young Orson Welles.
Filmmaker: How did you first become interested in the role of water in the global economy?
Salina: It goes back to 2002. I had been collecting articles on water, and one of the them jumped out at me. It was from The Nation, the headline was “Who Owns Water? Is Water Going to become the Oil of the 21st Century?” and it was written by Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke. Maude Barlow is an important character in our film. Inside the same article, there was a small story on New Orleans, because it was going to be the biggest privatization deal of water. So that was my first filming, going down there [to New Orleans] by myself.
Filmmaker: So did you just start by focusing on this one thing, and then it branched out?
Salina: Yeah, I was starting to be aware of the big questions: “Who owns water?” “What’s going to become of water?” “Who controls water?” I was also looking at things [differently] after hearing Robert Kennedy Jr., who is an environmental lawyer with River Keepers, on the radio talking about pollution. I started reading about pollution, and I was like “Oh, my God, this is like science fiction!” It was really not talked about much then. There was some coverage in 2004 of male fish turning female, but I think the reason it’s not been covered hugely is that there are huge lobby interests, whether it be huge agrichemical farming or hog farms or other industries. I just thought it was important. At the time, I didn’t think of the consequences or how big of a company I was talking about, but I thought it was important and then people could do what they want with the information. I believe documentary films are a good tool to provide information that right now you might not find in the press under this administration.
Filmmaker: You went to a lot of places around the world, so how did the scope of the film develop?
Salina: There was a lot of research – I really like to look into things. There was almost too much research, and there were places I decided not to go because there would be a whole film there. It was a combination of major research, intuition, and meeting people. Then at the editing stage, there were too many stories and we had to [pick the best]. I didn’t go the conventional way, I just talked a lot with the editor and we went back and forth. I wanted to do more but I learned that if you attack a big project, you are constrained to what finances you have and you just have to deal with that.
Filmmaker: There are some really fantastic real-life characters in the film. How did you find them?
Salina: Well, I met Maude Barlow very early on in the film. She’s fantastic because she’s an activist and many other things, but she’s not like a screaming activist, she’s like your aunt or the woman next door who is very sensitive and well-spoken. I wanted this film to be as accessible as possible, because too often things get put in boxes, [where people say] “This is the environment,” “This is activism.” But this is life and there are people who have decided to dedicate their life to exposing or helping or discovering. With Rajendra Singh, I had done a lot of research on India and one thing that kept coming back was rainwater harvesting. I came across a little article on him, I saw his photo and thought he looked like such a warm character. He was giving such intelligent responses that I said, “I really need to speak to him.” [It turned out that] he’s huge, he’s an amazing guy, and the president of India gave him an award but he couldn’t come [collect it] because he was busy stopping a mining company from killing a river – so the president of India had to take a helicopter to come give it to him. I had no idea; it was pure intuition mixed with luck.
Filmmaker: I think what’s interesting is that after highlighting these problems in the film, you are very positive about there being achievable solutions and things that we can all do to help the situation.
Salina: I’m so happy you mentioned that because often when people interview me they just talk about the “dramatic” parts, and I’m the one bringing them back [to the positive aspects]. I think it’s very important because it’s contagious and I’ve seen it. I think people power has always been [crucial], like the Margaret Mead quote, “Never doubt the power that one single individual can make a big difference.” There’s something unbelievably rewarding when you get together with people for the betterment of the community, or [to fix] something that is not right.
Filmmaker: How has the film affected your lifestyle and worldview?
Salina: I’m the complete opposite now. I used to buy bottled water and recycle, but now not only do I not buy bottled water – unless I’m in an airport and I forgot my own water – but I’m so aware of everything. It’s not only transformed me but also my friends, my daughter and her friends, the friends of the editor. There are now 150 people that are sending me articles on water that never paid attention to it. I completely changed, and that’s why I’m hopeful that other people can change too. I’m much more aware of the connections too; there’s a phrase I kept coming back to when I was traveling: “Everything is connected.” We’re walking around with our iPods and seeing less of the connections because there’s too much and people want to withdraw, but it’s all connected. If you cut down the trees by thousands in the rainforests in Brazil, that rainforest is responsible for 20% of our oxygen everywhere. It’s all connected. I’m going to say something terrible, but personally I love nature and I know nature is going to be fine. When there was a blackout in New York a couple of years ago, scientists calculated that the amount of pollution went down drastically. At the end of the day, it will be us that are not fine: there will be more cancer because of chemicals in the air and water, and it just goes on and on. I mean, have we given up on life? Do we not care any more about future generations? Or do we care? Maybe we need a boost of positive energy, whether we want it or not. We are completely over overwhelmed with what we are being told about the world, like Darfur, the tsunami, all of that on the one hand, and on the other hand we are living in this country under a political regime that has been so corrupted and secret that it’s difficult to regain any positivity. So it’s going to take a major shift…
Filmmaker: I believe you had a run in with a water company at a film festival recently.
Salina: Yes, it was at the Nantucket Film Festival a few months ago. It was sponsored by Nestlé and supposedly a woman from Nestlé came in and watched the film and she left, storming out of the screening. Another time, I was at a festival in California and my slot was at a ridiculous hour and it was not in the main movie theater. It was at quarter to ten in the morning and they had invited a school, but there was barely anybody there. One woman [from the festival] came up to me and said, “I just wanted you to know, we love your film but it was really difficult to get it passed by the board because Nestlé is our sponsor…” She said the one condition on which they said the film could be in [the festival] was that it was shown at an early time. But you need to think of those powers. If you look at the Al Gore film [An Inconvenient Truth], or DiCaprio’s [The 11th Hour], they don’t point [the finger] at anybody, they talk about the subject. Which is fine. But I took that risk because that’s the way it is, because I felt it’s about a cause and these days it’s fine to stand for a cause, because there’s so much going on that we have all talk about something.
Filmmaker: I read that you were a radio reporter when you were 15. I’m intrigued about what path you took from there to being a documentary filmmaker.
Salina: I quit school when I was 15. My parents split so I moved a lot, and then one day I decided I wasn’t going to school anymore. So my mom said, “Well, if you’re not going to school, you’ve got to work.” So I did theater, because I really loved theater at the time and because there are a lot of actors in my family, and then I started working for the radio. There were 10 young journalists and one main person doing the show – it was my first paying job and I loved it. We had this old-timer telling is how to prepare, do our research, cut the thing, do everything. Then I did some television, and then at 17 I announced to my mom I was going to New York and she was like, “Uh huh. Well, find money for your plane ticket…” So I did. I worked in a jewelry store or something like that, came to New York, and didn’t speak a word of English. Somehow, I just managed little jobs here and there and even worked on films under someone else’s name… [laughs] I remember working on Blue Jean Cop, True Believer by Joe Rubin, working in catering.
Filmmaker: So was that your first taste of the movies?
Salina: I’d been on my first set when I was really young because my uncle was Philippe Noiret. He took me to my first set, it was Liv Ullman and [director] Mario Monicelli. I spent 10 days in Italy and I loved it. I think it was a conspiracy between him, my mom and my grandmother to make me not like [films], because at an early age I’d expressed an interest. So he took me along and I just loved it even more. It didn’t work! There was a whole family gang trying to make me not interested, but it didn’t stop me from doing stuff. I remember in New York, I was in King of New York by Abel Ferrara. I was introduced to someone and before I know it I was meeting someone in casting, who said “But you’re not American, you can’t be in this film. You know what? There’s this prostitute part – she doesn’t talk.” I remember there was a scene where Christopher Walken is coming out of prison and is going to this bordello and that’s where you see me in the end. I remember listening to the scene, and I’m kind of shy but I’m going, “They’re making this scene and it’s supposed to be in an opium bordello and there no smoke…?” Abel was like “What’s that? Speak your mind!” As I was on set more and more, I realized I’m more of a director than someone in front of the camera. I like co-writing, I like holding a camera.
Filmmaker: When was the last time you wished you had a different job?
Salina: [laugh] Somewhere about four and a half years into making Flow. I was like, “What am I doing? Why don’t I just open a little restaurant on a Caribbean island?” You know, just having my little joints with the people that I like and the cook and receiving people and serving simple food, and the next day is the next day.
Filmmaker: What was your dream job as a child?
Salina: I was fascinated by archaeology as a child and also by theatre, but when I say theatre it was more like any cabaret and magic, any entertainment, any other world than the daily life. And archaeology, when you think about it, is like going into another time, discovering.
Filmmaker: If you could travel back in time and be able to make movies in a time and place of your choice, where and when would it be?
Salina: With Orson Welles, I’d be his assistant. Young Orson Welles. Any period of his earlier films, or when he was doing Shakespeare in Harlem.