Friday, October 23, 2009

CB Q/A #19: Kevin McMahon (Director of Waterlife)

I remember growing up just south of Chicago and taking trips into the city with my family, driving down Lake Shore Drive on warm summer days and staring out in envy at the throngs of beach-goers lining the shore.

I also remember, years later, going away to college to a small campus to the north of the city that also curved around the lake, and being disappointed by the fact that the "beach," such as it was, was a rocky out-cropping, and none of the sandy patches you might expect.

Finally, I remember moving up to Cleveland and learning that the city's shoreline had a little bit of both kinds of beaches, and that at places like Edgewater, folks could enjoy a day at the shore, but that no one I knew would advise such a thing. Filled with horror stories of ridiculous pollution levels and the corresponding health and safety issues, I gave up my daydreams of sitting and reading in the minor surf as small waves lapped up against my body.

When I first read about Kevin McMahon's new film, Waterlife, it reminded me of all those memories, and of the need to protect the waters we have. Poised as we are on the shore of Lake Erie, we have a commanding view of the last great fresh water supply on the planet. As we watch, its quality and sanctity erodes, threatening our economic platform as much as it ruins a day at the beach. McMahon's film delves deep into this area, examining the importance of the lakes to the 35 million people who live around them and the risks we face (and, indeed, are already facing) if we fail to curb our environmentally degrading actions.

Better still, McMahon makes this type of film, which could easily slip into self-righteous ideological bleating, into something cool, a cinematic moment as enjoyable and engaging as it is challenging. In doing so, his greatest asset is his soundtrack, which mines classic rock and to-the-minute indie releases, with inclusions of bands like The Tragically Hip (whose frontman, Gord Downie, also provides the film's narration), Sigur Ros, Phillip Glass, Robbie Robertson, Sufjan Stevens, and Sam Roberts. Once I realized the guy who had made what promises to be a great film also had pretty discriminating indie rock taste, I knew I had to try and get him to do one of these Q&As with me. What follows is the result of that conversation.

1) Other than other films/filmmakers, where do you find your influences? I mean, is there a certain type of art or artist, idea, spirit, etc.

Interesting question. Obviously there are filmmakers who have inspired me over the years. But the biggest cultural influence on my work is probably music and the most significant intellectual influence is contemporary science. My films are usually “environmental”, both in the sense that they are concerned with the our human relationship with the biosphere and in the sense that the films typically depict environments where that relationship is being played out in some obvious way. So I am influenced in the way I see those environments by my understanding of certain areas of contemporary science, such as complexity theory, non-linear dynamics and the odd shard of understanding I glean in my attempts to study physics. In a nutshell: I’m fascinated by the ways in which “everything connects” and try to show some of the science-based understanding of that idea in my work. The musical influence comes out in the way the films themselves are constructed. Since I am depicting environments or situations, I tend to work with the mathematical, rhythmic and poetic logic that underlies, say, a symphony or a pop song, as opposed to the linear narrative logic that drives most novels and movies.

2) Having completed the film, what do you think the future holds for the issues you identified and examined in Waterlife?

I think that depends entirely on the Great Lakes community, which is both the subject of Waterlife and its audience. The lakes are the largest source of surface fresh water on earth, so their fate matters to all the inhabitants of this planet. But practically, the people who decide that fate are the 35 million of us who live on the lakes. Right now, the lakes are in serious trouble from egregious mismanagement. Yet most of the forces degrading them could be stopped and reversed by technology and regulation, which require money and political will. Those of us who live around the lakes are arguably the richest and best educated people in the world, so there is every reason to believe that if we took the problems seriously we could solve them. Whether or not we will, then, is a matter of collective choice.

3) What is the film festival circuit like? What's the best thing and the worst?
The best thing about touring a film on the festival circuit is the opportunity to connect with audiences, which can be a powerful way to build a community around your subject. The worst thing about touring a film on the festival circuit is that it is very time-consuming and you make no money, so really it’s a game for the very young, the very rich or the very zealous.

4) What's your favorite moment in Waterlife?

There’s an interview in Waterlife with a resident of Lake St. Clair who tells us about spending decades boating and fishing from his property and how that has been ruined by sewage overflows and invasive species. Just as he gets to that point, the camera widens to show that his lake-front property has turned into swamp-front, because all the water is gone. I’d say that’s probably my favorite moment – at least my favorite to see with an audience. It always elicits gasps.

5) Though it doesn't seem necessarily germane to the subject, you've assembled a GREAT indie rock soundtrack to accompany your film. Do you see a connection between that and the film's subject, or is it just an opportunity to include music by some of your favorites?

I wanted to use pop music because Waterlife is essentially a watery road trip, which takes us from the north shore of Lake Superior to the Atlantic. It seems natural that a road movie has to have a rock score. I also wanted the film to have an eclectic soundtrack – as different as The Allman Brothers and Sigur Ros – which would reflect the diversity of viewpoints, places and people we encounter. Normally a documentary would not be able to afford this kind of soundtrack, but all the musicians involved were really supportive of the film’s mission and let us use their music for very little money.

6) The city of Cleveland has made some noise recently about wanting to make this a more film-friendly city. In your opinion, what are the most important things a city can do to encourage that kind of industry attention?

Luring out-of-town filmmakers is a complex business that really relies on tax incentives and such and is probably easier to accomplish at the state level. But a city can do a lot simply by making its own creative community feel welcome, with things like giving artists breaks on rents in city-owned property, providing decent services in the neighborhoods where artists congregate and preventing them from being evicted by the gentrification forces that inevitably trail behind them. I don’t know much about Cleveland’s own film community, but I hear there is interesting work being done in the city, so somebody there is doing something right!

7) Last but not least, any previous Cleveland experiences worth sharing?
I had two wonderful experiences there. One was my first meeting with Josephine Mandamin – the Anishinaabe woman in the film who walks around the lakes. She had already been on her journey for years when I set out to find her – which I did as she was walking through the lakefront suburbs west of Cleveland. The other fun experience there was sailing from Cleveland on the EPA ship Lake Guardian. So while neither were strictly Cleveland experiences, both gave us the chance to experience a little of your city.

Waterlife will play at the CIA Cinematheque (11141 East Boulevard, Cleveland) on Saturday, 10/24, at 7:00 PM and on Sunday, 10/25, at 4:00 PM.

1 comment:

Bridget Callahan said...

Best interview yet.

And don't give up sitting by the waterfront.
Clevelanders should be more hardcore, and the lake is our internal navigation system. No matter where I am in the country, I know which direction the lake is in.