Film Review: What Lies Upstream

This initially dutiful documentary about a 2014 chemical leak transforms into a powerful cri de couer about terrifyingly lax government oversight of the water supply.
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What Lies Upstream begins as a somewhat familiar example of the recently flowering genre of issue documentaries about highly specific pollution outrages. Director Cullen Hoback (Terms and Conditions May Apply) was initially drawn to West Virginia after hearing about a chemical spill there because of family ties to the region. But while the fright and confusion over the spill that he uncovered could have been enough for another filmmaker, Hoback takes the story further. The movie that resulted questions essentially whether the pollution in West Virginia is a particularly horrific outlier—as it is frequently portrayed in tut-tutting movies of this ilk—or a signifier of a nationwide scandal.

The initial catastrophe that brought Hoback back to a part of West Virginia known as “Chemical Valley” was a spill of the potentially hazardous but relatively unstudied chemical MCHM into a river. Around 300,000 people were left without potable water. A flurry of scenes show people lining up for bottled water and pointing in bafflement at the dark slurry coming out of their faucets. In the weeks that Hoback filmed in and around Chemical Valley just after the spill, the confusion and hot anger of many residents plays out with black comic effect against placid reiterations from people like the spokesperson for the local (private) water company who says, “Yes, the water is safe to drink.” Such utterances are given even less credence than usual because an unusual side effect of MCHM is that even very low concentrations make water smell like licorice.

What Hoback encounters, though, is not just the expected corporate stonewalling in the face of potentially expensive and litigious mistakes. For a state like West Virginia, where industry and their lobbyists have been so long entwined with the prospects of politicians, it becomes difficult for the movie to find much of a difference between the corporations and the regulators supposedly overseeing them. A series of interviews with Dr. Gupta, the head of a local health department, turn from a portrait of seemingly the only official looking to find the truth to an example of how dissident voices can be co-opted once he is promoted to a higher position. More worrisome, though oddly humorous, are Hoback’s continued encounters with Randy Huffman. Technically the head of the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, Huffman evinces an unflappably low-key attitude toward his job (“I don’t know the specifics” is a frequent utterance) that begs for Homer Simpson comparisons. This toxic mix of inattention and calumny is brought into sharp relief when Hoback witnesses a post-spill water-regulation bill first sail through the state legislature, only to be gutted by lobbyists a year later once the water has stopped smelling.

Later in this short but information-packed dispatch, Hoback detours to Flint, Michigan. That segment, along with Hoback’s sobering investigations into corporate-friendly attitudes at the supposedly regulation-happy Environmental Protection Agency and Centers for Disease Control, serves as a striking reminder that a lack of oversight about what goes into the nation’s water supply isn’t limited to the impoverished, mine-ravaged hills and hollows of West Virginia. As Hoback reminds viewers, “We’re all downstream of something.”

Click here for crew information. What Lies Upstream opens on Jan. 12 at the Maysles Cinema in New York City and the Arena Cinelounge in Los Angeles. Click here for Gravitas Ventures DVD/VOD information.