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Green Screen is a monthly column that summarizes and reviews the best in eco documentaries from around the world.
The Great Lakes contain about 20 percent of all surface fresh water on the earth. Here in North America, these five bodies of water—along with all the smaller lakes, rivers and waterways that connect them—are an essential resource for households, industries and wild species.
Director Kevin McMahon has always been interested in the subject of water, particularly in the regions surrounding the Great Lakes.
“The lakes are important to me,” he explains. “I grew up in Niagara Falls. I cottaged on Lake Erie as a kid. I camped on Lake Huron all the time. I go up and down the St. Lawrence River Valley all the time, and, of course, I live in Toronto, so I’m on Lake Ontario.”
Like millions of others in the United States and Canada, Kevin lives with an abundance of fresh water practically at his doorstep. But now, he says, the health of this precious resource is in jeopardy.
“It’s one of the things that is so utterly crucial to us, and, yet, we’re so utterly ignorant of what’s going on with it,” says Kevin.
His film, Waterlife, is a feature-length documentary focusing on a number of imminent threats to the Great Lakes, including invasive species, sewage, toxic waste and climate change.
Narrated by Gord Downie of The Tragically Hip, the film takes viewers on an eye-opening journey from the top of Lake Superior, following the water all the way to its exodus at the mouth of the St. Lawrence. Scientists and experts in various fields help tell the stories of affected communities, species and individuals.
“There’s 35 or 40 million people that live around the Great Lakes and many, many thousands of people involved with them as scientists, environmentalists, or polluters or whatever,” Kevin says. “I wanted to create the sense that, just like it’s all these drops of water that make up a lake, it’s all these individual voices or all these individual people that make up our effect on the lakes, and our experience of the lakes, for better or worse.”
According to Kevin, the most frightening issue facing the Great Lakes involves toxic chemicals that end up in the water supply.
“They’re just becoming this wash, this bath that we live in. ‘Chemical soup’ I think somebody in the film calls it. To me, that’s by far the most alarming problem, for a number of reasons,” says Kevin.
The film demonstrates how chemicals enter waterways directly, from sources like industrial plants, paper mills and refineries. But what many people don’t know is that they can also be emitted indirectly, as water treatment systems can’t remove certain chemicals from household products, pharmaceuticals and other substances that pass through our bodies.
“When I first started reporting on the environment, which was 30 years ago, the common line was ‘dilution is the solution to pollution’,” Kevin recalls. “You know, if you put a few drops of something in…ah, what the hell? It’s the Great Lakes. Well, now we know that’s not true.”
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