Filmmaker Cullen Hoback finds plenty of blame to go around while documenting environmental crises.
As up-to-date as its display of a post-election tweet by Donald Trump — who looms conspicuously large during the film’s opening and closing minutes — “What Lies Upstream” is a quietly devastating documentary that’s all the more attention-grabbing for being such a scrupulously restrained and slickly polished piece of work. Directed by Cullen Hoback, whose equally compelling “Terms and Conditions May Apply” (2013) cogently addressed privacy concerns in the digital age, the film percolates with a nonpartisan paranoia regarding state and federal regulatory agencies while linking the contamination of drinking water in West Virginia to what Hoback perceives as a perfect storm of industry maleficence, government negligence, and bureaucratic malpractice.
Both as narrator and onscreen interviewer, Hoback conveys a tone of earnest inquisitiveness, evincing the same polite manner whether addressing concerned scientists, state legislators, or trailer park residents. Initially, he visits West Virginia — where he has family roots — after people in and around Charleston begin complaining about the strange odor of their tap water. As often happens in such situations, the first to report health effects are folks on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. One working-class interviewee insists that while he is “100% for coal and 100% against Obama,” he nonetheless suspects grave environmental damage may have been caused by one of the industries based in his part of the state, an area known as Chemical Valley.
Sure enough, it’s detected that MCHM, a coal-processing chemical, leaked from rusting tanks at the local Freedom Industries facility. Technically, there were laws on the books that mandated regular inspections of such tanks. But as another interviewee pointedly emphasizes, “Regulation without enforcement is useless.”