What to see at Water Docs Film Festival 2019

The eighth-annual event screens films that focus on water issues and their ripple effects

Welcome to NOW’s weekly spotlight on Toronto’s indie festivals and screenings. It’s your chance to learn a little more about that cinematic event you’ve been meaning to check out, pitched by passionate programmers in their own words.


The eighth edition of Water Docs Canada, March 21-24 at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema (506 Bloor West), with a free pre-festival screening of The Water Warriors and awards ceremony at OISE Auditorium (252 Bloor West) March 20 at 6:30 pm.


Melanie Howe, festival programmer. “I’m a born-and-raised Torontonian, with a background in film and a deep passion for the environment,” she says. “When I’m not in programmer mode, I am avidly fundraising or coordinating events for Ecologos, the organization that founded the festival. I also attend several other local film festivals annually such as Hot Docs, Planet In Focus and the Human Rights Film Festival to stay abreast of the latest in the documentary world.”


Howe cites the Ecologos mission statement: “’To evoke a spirit of reverence for water to inform about threats that imperil water to inspire citizen action to protect water. Water ripples deeply in each of us. To stir that rippling is to awaken action.’ The Water Docs Film Festival is Ecologos’ flagship program. It helps us achieve our mission alongside Water Docs @ School, Water Docs Where-You-Live, and most recently our Wild Water Residency program. The programs all help us connect people with water across Ontario and across generations.

“Ancient cultures were very much in tune with their relationship with water and the need to protect it,” she continues. “Our goal is to help rebuild the connection between water and people as well as people and water, and to reinforce the notion that if we keep our water healthy, it will keep us healthy.”


Thoughtful: the festival has offered filmmaker Q&As and panel discussions since its first year. “Part of the ethos of Ecologos is to use guided conversations to help people understand issues on a deeper, more feeling, level in order to evoke empathy and emotion,” Howe says, “and then to use the energy of that emotion in order to move people to take action of some sort. We are still a relatively small festival, and haven’t yet moved into the realm of master classes and industry programming. [But] as we continue to grow and evolve, we are looking toward that sort of positive expansion in order to create new and unique offerings for our filmmakers as well as our audience members.”

Since its inception, the festival has evolved “in waves,” Howe says. “In 2012, we offered free film screenings at a Toronto community centre to see if there was a thirst for a film festival about all things water. Much to our surprise and delight, we found there was a real interest in the documentaries we screened, and we’ve continued to grow our profile and audience ever since.”

And Water Docs has found other ways to raise its profile: “Last year we introduced our inaugural Water Warrior Award, which is presented each year at the festival to an individual who has made an outstanding contribution to protecting and raising awareness about threats and issues facing water,” Howe says. “Our 2018 recipient was Maude Barlow – Canadian author, activist and honorary chairperson of the Council of Canadians. This year we will present two awards, one to the late Grandmother Josephine Mandamin, and the second to Josephine’s great-niece and water activist and advocate, Autumn Peltier.”


“Incredibly, the answer is no,” Howe says. “Water is the basic building block of all life on this beautiful blue planet we call home, and as such it flows through and permeates everything on Earth in all of its amazing shapes and forms: weather, food, climate change, industry, sport… everything, really. An estimated 2.6 billion jobs (or 78 per cent of the world’s work force) are moderately or heavily dependent on water! Basically, if it has life and is here on this planet, then it has the element of water in it, and therefore, it is vitally important to all aspects of individual life.”

Just think about climate change, she says: “Melting glaciers, rising water levels, drought, wildfires, floods, pollution and the negative effects of industry tons of plastics in our oceans – microplastics, endocrine disruptors and pharmaceuticals in the water supply activism, and much more.” The documentaries she programs “shed light on these issues in varied and unique ways, as well as highlighting the need for people to take action for water.

“Some of the most surprising and moving approaches I have found are those stories that illuminate ancient wisdom about water and its protection,” she says. “They speak so eloquently to how people have interacted with water through the centuries and how this most precious element weaves through their customs and beliefs. Much of this ancient wisdom comes from our Indigenous brothers and sisters from all around the world, and their traditional teachings that have been passed down over the years. These are the stories that touch me the most, and many of the filmmakers behind the films that showcase these stories use non-traditional ways to do so.”


“Our opening night feature film Aquarela (Thursday March 21, 6 pm), by Russian filmmaker Victor Kossakovsky, is awesome,” Howe says. “It really makes water, in all its forms, the protagonist, which is a very unique perspective. This film has already amazed audiences across Europe, and our screening will be the North American premiere. It is truly an awe-inspiring ode to the majesty of water.”


“The second film I’d like to highlight is called The Weight Of Water (Friday March 22, 6 pm),” she says. It’s our 2019 best feature film award winner, screening on World Water Day, and depicts the epic challenge of blind eco-adventurer Erik Weihenmayer as he kayaks the Colorado River – and all of its white-water rapids – through the Grand Canyon. This film showcases not only the obvious challenges of the differently abled community in reconnecting with nature, but also the personal struggle of the protagonist in overcoming his own fears of the journey he set out for himself, physically, mentally and emotionally. Filmmaker Michael Brown will be Skyping in, and blind sport-fishing enthusiast Lawrence Gunther, president of Blue Fish Canada, will be here in person to take part in a post-screening Q&A discussion.”


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