When a right becomes a privilege 

By Karen Herland

Magnifying glass

Despite increasing pressure from citizen groups around the world to have water recognized as a human right, the Canadian government has twice opposed moves by the United Nations to enshrine the right to water in international law.

Liz Miller has seen firsthand what happens when a community can no longer access water.

Miller began work on The Water Front, her documentary on the right to affordable water, three years ago, when she first joined the Communication Studies Department here. “I was at a congress against water privatization in Miami, and I met the protagonists of the film.”

She had been interested in exploring the privatization of water as a global issue and had already attended similar congresses in Latin America and in Africa.

The story shifted from macro to micro when she met a group of people from Highland Park, Michigan. People in the community were faced with water bills of up to $10,000 and some were in danger of losing their homes if they could not pay up. Half of the city’s residents had had their water turned off.

“It’s a story that no one ever imagines is happening right now in the US,” said Miller.

Miller, whose background is in advocacy filmmaking, wanted to tell a story that addressed intersecting concerns around gender, race, class and how community decisions are made. Using a narrative structure, she explored how Vallory Johnson galvanized a community by framing water as a rights issue.

The Water Front won the Ramsar Medwet Award at its preview screening earlier this year in Greece. Jury members said “covering all water issues, from pricing to privatization and — above all, the human right to water — this film sends a strong message on the way public participation and action can overcome problems.”

Miller’s research revealed that Highland Park had benefited from a state-of-the-art water treatment plant constructed by Henry Ford to support a thriving car-manufacturing community. That changed when the car industry moved away. For perspective on what happens when a one-industry town loses that industry, rent Michael Moore’s film investigation of neighbouring Flint, Mich., Roger and Me.

As Highland Park’s population dwindled from 60, 000 to about a quarter of that, it was no longer able to sustain the large infrastructure of the community. The town was going broke.

The state appointed an emergency financial manager who decided that it was up to Highland Park’s poor, black, aging and under-employed community to finance the plant or be left high and dry. The community effectively lost its access to water coming from the Great Lakes, the world’s largest available fresh water source, until it got organized. It was that process that is documented in Miller’s film.

“I have less of a stake in whether privatization is right or wrong than that a community should be making that decision.”

The film itself was shown in Highland Park and Miller and community organizers coordinated a half-day workshop on how to use the film to strengthen coalitions. It brought together representatives from anti-poverty groups and environmental organizations, many of whom had never visited Highland Park before. “Now many environmental groups are starting to frame issues in the context of environmental justice.”

Miller has developed various versions of the film so that its message can be transmitted on TV, in community groups and as a tool for change. The film’s website, www.thewaterfrontmovie.com, offers links to related campaigns, organizing tools and strategies.

The film premieres in Toronto at the Planet In Focus film festival on Oct. 27. It will also be screening soon in New York City. The Montreal premiere is slated for Nov. 16 at 8 p.m. as part of the Rencontres documentary film festival in UQAM’s Coeur des Sciences Auditorium.


Concordia University