Somehow I’d ended up on a plastic mattress in a tiny prison cell in Wisconsin wearing the infamous orange jumpsuit, after a humiliating strip search and orders to wash with anti-lice shampoo. I never dreamed my filmmaking would land me here, especially in the so-called land of freedom. I had been arrested whilst filming a small, peaceful protest by mainly indigenous Americans against the construction of a new oil pipeline, for my documentary ‘Thirst For Justice’ on America’s struggle for clean water. Though I made bail the next day, the pipeline company Enbridge demanded $85,000 in restitution, which is where I can’t recommend enough the first-rate services of First Amendment lawyer Henry Kaufman.
My journey here began on the Navajo Native American reservation, which spans the states of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. Almost 40% of people here live below the poverty line and have no running water. Nothing prepared me for what I saw. Whole communities are living amidst piles of radioactive waste from the historic uranium mining that fuelled the Cold War arms race from the 1940s to the 1980s.
While scanning the Navajo Times I read a quote by a Navajo community leader talking about uranium contamination in her son’s school’s water supply. I emailed her and asked to meet. She was dynamic, articulate, relatable, and I knew that she would be my main protagonist. Now I just needed to persuade her. I was living in Michigan, but I stayed with her on the family couch for weeks at a time, filming everything. But it was still maybe 2 months before she really opened up on the camera. As victims of genocide and broken promises, this is a difficult community to gain trust in. Janene later admitted that initially, she was suspicious of my intentions, but my mum had been visiting me from London and had come along to that first meeting. Mum clinched it for me. If I planned to betray her, would I have really brought along my mum?
I followed Janene as she looked for the sources of contamination. My journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan meant I could get training and borrow a good geiger counter from my Radiological Sciences Professor Kim Kearfott. We maxed it out and according to Professor Kearfott we found radiation levels that are much higher than those recorded in evacuated areas around Chernobyl.
Then an unprecedented movement for water ignited in Standing Rock, North Dakota, against the construction of a pipeline that threatened some of the country’s most important waterways. I followed Janene there, in what would turn out to provide some of the films’ most dramatic action scenes. But there were still some filming obstacles, like sub-zero temperatures, a hostile police force handing out felony charges, and a movement suspicious of the media. Not to mention having to stay in a yurt without electricity to power my camera. The yurt had a wood burner in it though and I’m grateful I got a spot in there.
At some point during filming, after getting lots of feedback on my rough-cuts, I accepted that Janene was not able to knit the entire film together. The scope had gotten wider than her story. I knew from my Raindance filmmaking course that there needed to be a clear journey, rising to a climax and then a conclusion. I realised that on this particular yellow brick road, I was Dorothy, and included myself in the film. Raindance told us to go out and make a film. Don’t let anyone see your first film, but go out and make another and then another. I’ve broken that first cardinal rule, but I’ll aspire to follow that second mantra.
THIRST FOR JUSTICE
‘In the face of official denial and repression, extraordinary citizens across America fight for clean water. Can they succeed?’