by Tony Rutherford , HNN Entertainment Editor

"What Lies Upstream," an independent film made mostly in WV, promises "not to bore," as the political thriller utilizes both the WV water crisis and the Flint crisis for its basis. 

We caught up with filmmaker Vince Sweeney who talked via email about the production which screens at Marquee Pullman @ 12 noon on Saturday, Nov. 4. The movie screens in Charleston Friday Nov 3 at 7 p.m. as part of the WV International Film Festival. 

 HNN: How did you decide to focus on the Flint crisis?

 

The Flint crisis happened while we were still doing follow-up work on the WV crisis. There were similarities between the cities with both having a governing body with little in the way of answers, and in both places many low-income families were affected so it only seemed natural to spend time in Flint and add what we found there to the film. WV is our primary focus however. 
Political Thriller Plays Pullman, Charleston WV Film Festival
    HNN: What were the largest contributors to the contamination?  

The MCHM leak at the storage site was the source of the contamination, at first, but as we dove deep into our own water analysis afterwards, we found that other questions needed to be asked and the film looks into much larger issues concerning our overall water health, country-wide. WV and Flint are actually small symptoms of bigger problems.  

The scary issue we realized in WV is simply that MCHM had an odor additive as a safety measure so you can easily smell it, even in extremely small amounts. What is worrisome is that the smell is the only reason it was detected. Many poisonous chemicals do not have this additive so what else have people consumed without ever knowing it? If people think the water company can detect these things before it's sent to your home, they are very much mistaken. It's "Chemical Valley" and it's logical that this kind of thing has happened before but with no one ever knowing, at least until it's too late.

 

HNN How difficult was it to get officials to speak on camera about the issue?

  We had a lot of officials willing to talk to us although there were few answers, as there was little information to go on. We dove into why this is, in the movie. The people who did not want to talk, even after repeated requests, were those who owned the rusty storage tanks and of course, American Water, which we never could understand. Why not face some straight forward questions? They chose to ignore us which only results in more confusion and frustration for all.       HNN: Are the WV waters now safe? 
  Are citizens in WV safe now? In my own opinion, as someone who filmed countless interviews with scientists, specialists, citizens and everything in between is, sort of. Safe from that particular chemical? I think so. Safe from what else is in there? I'll put it this way, I don't drink the stuff. Even in the LA area where I live, I use filtered water for drinking and cooking but unfortunately due to costs for a house filter system, I use tap water for showers and hope for the best. In Flint there is obvious progress on their lead pipeline replacement program but I'd not want my own child drinking anything from that city.
Political Thriller Plays Pullman, Charleston WV Film Festival
    HNN: How many other cities are Flints in the making?
  Cities in every state are potentially the next Charleston or Flint and there's been plenty of problems since these two places made headlines. It won't stop either but if we can get it to slow down a little, we are making progress toward it being a very rare thing.     HNN: What other films have you directed and do you have any in the works?
  My feature narrative film "Blue Ridge" was released a few years ago which resulted in me meeting Cullen. I worked with him on his last documentary, which was nationally released, called "Terms and Conditions May Apply" and some of the money from that success funded this film, as well as some private investment but it wasn't enough to carry us the entire 3+ years so a lot of free time, sweat and tears were put in to make it to the end.    We both have new projects in the works as we tour with this film. My narrative feature, called "Whitetail", which is designed to be shot in the Appalachian region, is being shopped around for investment now. My screenplay was actually a finalist at Slamdance this year so it's off to a good start. I'm also working with Cullen on his next film which is a documentary currently being filmed but I can't comment on that just yet.
Political Thriller Plays Pullman, Charleston WV Film Festival
  So far What Lies Upstream has played at a lot of festivals but one award stands out, from the 2017 Seattle Int. Film Festival, which was a special jury award for Investigative Journalism. Things like that help to reaffirm the work we did on this very long-term project.   HNN: From experience , do you believe that burial of radioactive waste i.e. uranium, plutonium, nickel carbonyl, chromium, etc. in an insecure site would leach to other places?  Would not sewer facilities contain traces of the radiation even 50 years later from where employees had excreted exposure in the restrooms?   I can't comment on those specific sewer issues for lack of facts on my end but as far as ground contamination goes in general, and how that affects our water supply, it's an absolutely critical issue and we dive into that during the film quite a bit, including questions like: are people aware there is human sewage in potting soil and it's completely legal as allowed by the EPA? They have certainly made many things better, but what else has the EPA allowed that hurts us in the long run?    HNN: Anything ordinary citizen can do asking about what they are drinking, esp. since the information usually kept secret?
Political Thriller Plays Pullman, Charleston WV Film Festival
  The people need to ask questions when they have them, and be a jerk about it. Don't assume anything and always ask questions, all the time. The government is just made of people and they don't have endless resources nor can they see all the issues we face; sometimes we have to be proactive and loud. In the situations we focus on in the film, they had more questions themselves than anyone had answers. When there is a lack of facts and real science, chaos starts to sneak in.