What Lies Upstream


Documentary Films | 2017 | 89 minutes

Stranger Says:

An exploration of the increasingly toxic levels of ick in the drinking waters of West Virginia, as well as the scary repercussions for the rest of the country. If that description and the horror-ish title didn’t already worry you enough, be advised: Trump’s tweets make an appearance. Director Cullen Hoback may follow the standard Michael Moore playbook a little too closely—remember when documentary filmmakers mainly stayed behind the camera?—but the levels of malfeasance that he uncovers are genuinely impressive. Both enraging and informative, with more than a few satisfying moments of politicians squirmingly hoisted with their own petard.

SIFF Says:

Methodical in its narrative build-up and presentation, Cullen Hoback’s documentary depicts harsh calamity and delivers an eviscerating commentary on the state of environmental regulations and the chemical manufacturers taking advantage of them. In January 2014, coal chemical processor Freedom Industries allowed a chemical spill into the Elks River near Charleston, West Virginia, contaminating the drinking water of more than 300,000 local residents. Initial fallout inspired Hoback’s three-year investigation, which would lead him from local government to the EPA and its attempts at regulation—or rather an alarming lack thereof. Interviews with the working poor offer the starkest depictions of life in West Virginia’s “Chemical Valley,” where several mining and chemical companies maintain their plants. Although locally severe, Hoback finds Charleston’s water-quality problems a microcosm of nationwide environmental malpractice, as companies are allowed to fabricate their own safety data, which is then used by local governments to determine regulations and the extent to which they’ll enforce them. Hoback is steadfast and serene in his interviewing despite confrontation with tribalist hypocrisy as West Virginia lawmakers roll back environmental regulations a year after the spill under lobbyist influence. This film carries a profound relevance in the face of Trump-era EPA rollbacks and defunding. After all, as Hoback notes at the film’s close, we all live downstream of something.

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Film Credits
Cullen Hoback
Dr. Marc Edwards, Dr. Rahul Gupta, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, Cullen Hoback, Randy Huffman, Dr. David Lewis, Maya Nye, Dr. Andrew Whelton
SIFF 2017