Shalini Kantayya: Who Controls Water Controls Life
Screenshot from the short sci-fi film A Drop of Life (2012), directed by Shalini Kantayaa.
If you’re talking about gender equality, you’re talking about water. If you’re talking about the rights of women and girls in the developing world, you’re talking about water. — Shalini Kantayya
BY VASILIKI EUGENIS| THE WATER ISSUE |SUMMER 2016
Shalini Kantayya is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker, eco-activist, and educator who’s passionate about using storytelling to get to the heart of human rights issues. A self-professed sci-fi geek, she’s fixated on new technologies and their impact on the near future. She runs her own production company, 7th Empire, and has been a TED Fellow, Sundance Fellow, Fulbright Scholar, and finalist on FOX’s reality T.V. show On the Lot.
It’s easy to see why she’s gained such widespread recognition. Whether it’s exploring the alien nature of school lunches or profiling a sustainable ocean farmer, Kantayya blends boldness and vulnerability in her narratives to expose harsh truths. You can’t look away — and you don’t want to.
Her 2012 short sci-fi film, A Drop of Life, is Kantayya’s commentary on the continual failure of water systems in India where well-intentioned projects from the West abound. It is also what happens when water is no longer treated as sacred but entirely as a commercial endeavor. (The film is available on Netflix and IndieFlix.)
By showing the impact of the water crisis on the day-to-day of those most affected, A Drop of Life sets out to reclaim water as a fundamental human right. It is a foreboding tale of what the future may hold if we’re not careful. In Kantayya’s view, the circumstances are dire.
A Drop of Life begins innocently enough. It opens with a mother and daughter fetching water from a well in Kutch, India. (See “The ‘Dream’ of School for Impoverished Girls in Little Rann of Kutch, by Photojournalist Nikki Kahn“) The daughter, Devi, is late to school. She runs to a tree to join her classmates gathered around a schoolteacher named Mira telling a story about a greedy man who tears apart a chicken for its golden eggs. The scene is full of laughter and color and warmth.
Across the world in New York City we are introduced to Nia, an African-American corporate executive who is responsible for a prepaid water meter project that will be installed in the village where Devi and Mira live. Nia is exhausted and anxious; we quickly come to see why the project weighs on Nia’s conscience.
Kantayya’s choice of characters in A Drop of Life is deliberate. Again and again we hear how women of color all over the world are disproportionately affected by the global water crisis. In India alone, where water is celebrated and revered, a rural woman walks a staggering 14,000 km per year on average to collect water.
A Drop of Life forces us to confront what a statistic like this really means. Numbers are given a name, a history, a loss.
As the film continues, money on the meter runs out and the pump dries up. Sickness abounds. Nia travels to Kutch to check up on the project and faints upon learning that Devi has died. Nia, too, shares a deep ancestral connection to water — she has a vision of she and her grandmother in a river, evoking an African-American tradition of outdoor baptisms. It is this moment where Nia and Mira become intimately linked through their shared histories of water as a sacred, life-giving force.
In her visit to our class on “Artists, Social Change, and the Role of Journalism” at New York University this Spring, Kantayya shared more about her current focus on the clean energy economy with her new film, Catching the Sun. But water still remains an important issue for her. In the interview below, NYU student and young arts activist Vasiliki Eugenis spoke with Kantayya about the connection between water and privilege, how A Drop of Life is used as tool for activism worldwide, and what we’re not talking about when it comes to water, but should be.
— Celeste Hamilton Dennis, Editor
Q: Why choose water as the subject of your film? Was it based on a personal connection you have to this issue of access to clean water?
A: I was on a Fulbright in India in 2001. On a whim, a friend asked me to help him document a religious festival called Kumbh Mela, which is the largest gathering of human beings on the planet. It’s where an estimated 70 million people come to bathe at the confluence of three rivers: Ganga, Yamuna, and Shipra.
I spent 40 days living on the banks of a river and watched these pilgrims take baths. I was moved by people who look at this river as a life-giving mother, and also called into question some cultural practices. You call it mother, but then how do you throw all this paper and plastic into it as offerings?
So, the film developed out of this very intimate relationship I had with the Ganga where people have offered prayers for over a millennia. That sent me on a journey. I started to research fervently about water and water issues. What I learned shook me out of my seat. An estimated four billion people, two thirds of the world’s population, will not have access to clean drinking water within the next 15 years.
Q: You chose science fiction to tell this story, over documentary or drama.
A: I’m a geek and a sci-fi fanatic. I love Star Wars. My life was changed by 1984. I really think sometimes that science fiction can give us a better mirror of reality than even documentary can.
This idea of having prepaid water meters on village water pumps where you can’t get water unless you have money to pay for it is sort of like a science fiction. The more I researched, I realized these water meters existed in 10 countries. I had this science fiction dystopia and it became a documentary. Which is very disturbing.
Q: Water is an issue that impacts the lives of women and girls the most. Can you talk about the framing of and centering on women characters in this story, and more specifically, women of color?
A: On the average, women in Africa and parts of Asia walk 15 kilometers every day to collect water. It often keeps young girls out of school because they have to carry the weight of collecting water for the family.
I began to see that if you’re talking about gender equality, you’re talking about water. If you’re talking about women’s rights and the rights of women and girls in the developing world, you’re talking about water.
I felt it was a more complex story because the corporate executive is African- American. We have some sense in her historical memory of water as sacred. There’s a short baptism scene where her character is torn between the way she’s been brought up by her family and grandmother and the corporate world she inhabits. I thought this relationship between these two women around water was a powerful one.
Q: Speaking of the relationship between water and people, at the end of the film you offer the following endnote, “Who controls water controls life.” What do you believe the connection between water and privilege is? What we can do to change that?
A: I think the truth is simple and terrifying: the demand for water is greater than the supply. We want to believe this is like a Star Wars movie in a galaxy far, far away but there are no borders to this water crisis.
We’ve seen in places like Flint, Michigan what happens when there’s corruption around water, and the dangers we have in places like New York around fracking. We’re beginning to realize it can be gone in a moment, this thing that we take for granted.
As water becomes incredibly scarce, corporations are vying for every last drop to privatize and profit from this life-giving substance. Water is a human right that cannot be bought and sold. We are the stewards of water for future generations. It’s our job to make sure it stays clean, that it stays accessible, and that it stays in the commons gathered by everyone.
Q: How has the film been used beyond the screen? How has it been utilized as a tool for education and activism?
A: I’ve always been an eco-activist. My love for filmmaking and my love for stories of the underdog have always been central to the kinds of stories I tell.
What I had was a passion to do something and tell a story. I never really dreamed it would be an organizing tool for someone to use in 40 villages across Africa, where it was taken off laptops and translated from the English subtitles into the provincial African languages and used as a way of talking about water rights in each village. That’s one of the things I was proudest of. It was also used in a campaign to boycott water meters in South Africa and on the campuses of Connecticut College and Brandeis University in Boston to boycott bottled water.
It has shown me that a story that moves the heart really has the capacity to transform the world we live in.
Q: How do you think people in the United States can take action to battle this issue?
A: Water is really local issue. Every state has its own battles. In states like New York, it’s about making sure we abolish fracking, which is the biggest threat to our aquifers. We’re talking about the largest unfiltered drinking supply in the world in New York. We’ve got to stop fracking and things that drill beneath our aquifers.
The thing I’d really like to see is an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with teeth. The EPA was created under President Richard Nixon and I want to see an EPA where we don’t have oil companies responsible for their own regulating. We need environmental protection and regulation.
I think one of the things we can do is to strengthen the laws that were created under Nixon. We can strengthen the Clean Water Drinking Act, which protects us from 91 chemicals but we now have a few thousand more chemicals we need protection from. We can each look at where our water comes from and how we can protect it.
Q: Globally, in what ways should we be talking about water that we are currently not?
A: The thing is, when we talk about water in India, we don’t need to teach people that there’s a crisis. Clearly there is. India has less than 4% of the world’s water and 20% of the world’s population. It’s not hard. India is a country that’s been living with a water crisis for decades.
Here in the States, we need a wake-up call in a big way. We’ve had crisis on top of crisis, whether it’s chemical spills in Virginia or just plain evil mismanagement of what we are seeing in Flint where our children are being poisoned as a result of corruption.
Water is a precious, precious substance and we need greater foresight about our future. We really need to start thinking about water as part of our national security and essential to our lives.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Vasiliki Eugenis is a sophomore in the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University studying the effects of art on people and communities. Growing up in New York, Vasi was constantly aware of the injustices around her and developed a drive to do something about it. She hopes to one day use the arts to raise awareness and tackle social issues.
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