PBS Premiere: July 13, 2004Check the broadcast schedule »

Filmmaker Interview

POV: What lead you to make this film? What did you find compelling about the story of water?

Alan Snitow: We wanted a story that linked the global and the local. We were pulled to the privatization of water because water is in play both locally and globally. Water is going to be the centrally contested resource in the twenty-first century. Water, perhaps the most central element of life, may no longer be controlled by the people elected to govern. This issue is going to affect everything from agriculture, to your city water supply, to whether the poor can afford water at all.

Deborah Kaufman: The story of the corporate takeover of water is a little bit "under the radar" for most Americans. We have such a good water supply here, we don't really think when we turn on the tap, when we flush our toilets, or when we drink out of a bottle. But in many parts of the world, water is scarce and clean water is even scarcer. From scarcity arises an opportunity for a profit, and as the world changes and as more and more goods and services become marketable commodities, corporations are clamoring to turn water, something we all thought of as a human right, into a profitable commodity. You know, if our film wasn't a documentary it would probably be science fiction. It's so bizarre, the thought of corporations coming in and trying to take over your water supply.

POV: What are the film's central themes?

Kaufman: The film tries to capture a clash between cultures: a corporate culture, desirous of profit and efficiency, and the culture of communities, which have other values, values that have to do with protecting the environment, with human rights, with democracy and with the public good.

Snitow: One key part of the water story that struck us was that people's desire for local control of water became a new struggle, one to redefine what democracy means. Water is an issue that crystallizes questions about democracy. So this is a story about people's sense of their public lives, of what democracy is, of what it is to be in a community.

POV: What was the process of making the film like?

Kaufman: It was fast: it only took about two years. We felt really compelled to make it quickly because of the story's urgency. In the next five or ten years, many communities in the United States are going to face the takeover of their water supplies. We didn't have the time to sit around and wait, so we followed stories that were unfolding over the last year.

POV: Tell us a bit more about who we meet in this film. How did you find your main characters?

Snitow: Well, generally, when we look for stories, we actually look for the characters: people who want to tell their stories. We've found that those people, and they're very often not the people that you'd expect, come alive on camera because they have great conviction about what they're doing.

You get somebody like Michael MacDonald, the supervisor at the water plant in Stockton. This man is motivated by the idea of public service, a rare and antique notion in cynical times like these. This kind of integrity is really out there, but is so rarely represented in the media that we see every day.

Mayor Gary Podesto is a larger-than-life mayor of a small city in California. As a former businessman, he is extremely committed to the marketplace. American cities are now in desperate budgetary situations and he is one of the leaders of a national drive to bring in private companies to take over local water systems. He is convinced that this is the way to go.

The work of Rajendra Singh was a revelation. It has a biblical element to it — he's working to bring water to the desert lands through rainwater harvesting, entirely run with volunteer labor. This work has really brought an entire area of the country back to life. We saw the change right in front of our eyes. I mean, it's rare you get a chance to see such a transformation with a camera. So, his story is irresistible.

Thirst - Alan and Deborah with crew on location in Rajasthan, India

Alan and Deborah with crew on location in Rajasthan, India

POV: Was this film a learning experience for you?

Snitow: The thing we've learned most in making the film is how tied together the questions of democracy and globalization are. Democracy is about very immediate and concrete things like the water that comes out of your tap or the river that flows down from six miles away.

Kaufman: I understand now the degree to which people will fight and die over the protection of their resources and the degree to which corporations want to come in and make a profit on those resources. This is a battle that is just coming to the United States. I feel an urgency now about this issue that I didn't feel when I began the project.

POV: Does this issue affect the everyday American consumer? How does it relate to other consumer issues?

Snitow: Well, we talked recently to a mayor who'd been to a conference where he was lobbied to privatize every city service: welfare, education, prisons, parking meters, traffic lights. Every single public service, other than police and fire, was up for grabs. This raises the question: what is the public sector?

Kaufman: Yes, it's not just water that's being privatized, but a whole host of public goods and services. And when politicians start making public-private partnerships with corporations, they cede control and citizens lose the opportunity for participation. Water is where people draw the line, where people say enough is enough, you can't sell this to the highest bidder. It's the last straw in terms of commodification of all of our resources. Water is not a commodity like cell phones or tennis shoes, it's something different.

POV: What's the hardest thing about documentary filmmaking? What was hard about making this film?

Snitow: The hardest thing is giving up control of what's going to happen in your own film. You're struggling along with your characters but at the same time you have to stay slightly "outside," because you have to respect their internal process and you don't want to influence what's going on. You're not in control of anything.

Kaufman: It is difficult to tell a complicated story and make an emotional impact at the same time. You're caught in the dilemma of providing information and allowing emotions to unfold. For us, the challenge with "Thirst" was to trust the material and trust that the stories would catalyze people to find out more information, so that we didn't have to be entirely expository. We didn't want to make a "talking heads" film, that's not what "Thirst" is. It's really important to have a grounding in the facts and in the intellectual context, but for film it's also crucial to tell a story. You have to get to the theme or the essence and let emotions unfold on camera. We wanted to let people who were directly impacted by the story tell it from their own point of view.

POV: What are your hopes for the film?

Kaufman: We really hope that the film becomes a catalyst for a dialogue about some really basic issues: should water be available and accessible to all and at what price? And who gets to make that decision? When there's arsenic in their local water supply, people get very upset. The purity of water is something that we all think about. But even though it's closely related, people don't give that much thought to who manages or owns the water and who's profiting from it. I also hope the film encourages more public participation in decisions that are going to affect our lives.

Snitow: We want people to see Thirst and question the absolute belief, which seems to be hegemonic right now, that anything that the private sector does is right, better, truer, more flexible, more efficient and cheaper. We have to examine that as a society because it ain't necessarily so.

Read Deborah and Alan's answers to questions from viewers »