Water is a big issue in Aotearoa New Zealand, too– the degradation of our waterways; drinking water contamination; the offshore sale of our pure water; the debate about Maori sovereignty over water, under Te Tiriti o Waitangi/ the Treaty of Waitangi, signed in 1840. Partly because this has raised my awareness about the significance of access to water, my heart is absolutely with the women in Leana's work. And with Leana, editing through the night as I write this.
Leana is a reporter/producer for BBC's World Service Radio and has held many other roles within the BBC. As a highly experienced multimedia journalist she's originated ideas, fixed stories, written scripts, filmed and edited them.
|Leana covering caste-based rape|
WW How and why did you become a journalist?
LH When I was 12 years old I remember reading my parents' news magazine and I decided then that I wanted to become a war correspondent. I was reading about the Taliban takeover of power in Afghanistan and I was really struck by the descriptions of women not being allowed to work anymore, music being banned and of mass executions. I want to do what this journalist is doing, I thought to myself.
I didn’t actually realise that ambition – I’ve worked a bit in war zones, but not much. But I do love telling the stories of everyday people and revealing the impact of power or abuses of power on people’s lives. However, my career path wasn’t straight. I studied Politics and International Relations at the the University of Wales, Swansea and then straight after graduation I went to Japan to work as an Assistant Language Teacher for the JET programme.
Living and working abroad enabled me to totally immerse in another culture and I knew it’s something I wanted to do more of. So when an opportunity for an entry level position in the BBC World Service Radio opened up I went for it.
It really opened the world for me and let me into the lives of people everywhere. I remember making a film in Yemen, following the famous Muslim televangelist Amr Khaled – who has more viewers than Oprah – around the country as he combatted extremism. In the morning we interviewed the then-President Ali Abdullah al Saleh, in the afternoon we were at the docks talking to fishermen and then the next day we interviewed the former bodyguard of Osama bin Laden. This really exemplifies why I love my profession.
WW Why did you decide to make Water Protectors as your first feature?
LH Working in international news on some of the most important and exciting stories in the world, from the Arab Spring to the war is Gaza, has been an amazing rollercoaster ride. But as news journalists you can often feel that you’re just flying in and out of events and lives. You also leave so much great material on the cutting floor, because a TV news piece can only be around 2 minutes. This is why I value long form journalism and watching documentaries are my favourite way of learning about topics.
I have always been interested in environmental stories and how they intersect with human rights issues. But usually when you talk to journalists there’s one story that has captured us like no other. For me it was the situation of the Navajo people living amongst piles of radioactive waste with no recourse to justice and a plethora of illnesses. It started me on the road to making Water Protectors.
Tackling the causes of health issues and pointing to corporate or government crime is an extremely tricky and libellous subject. It takes a long time and is often not 100 percent conclusive. It means that news organisations often don’t want to cover them. But it’s what gets my passions up so I’m willing to spent the time to make a film about it. I hope Water Protectors will shed light on an important subject that news has not really been able to do.
WW Water Protectors is about 'ordinary women who struggle to be heard'. Why women? And why these women?
LH I think there’s a strong relationship between women and water. In many places in the world it’s often the women who are fetching the water, cooking with it, washing the children and clothes in it. They understand intimately the importance of clean water. On the Navajo Nation, in Flint and in Standing Rock women have been at the forefront of this movement for clean water, so it’s natural that I should chose female protagonists.
Traditionally the Navajo Nation is matriarchal, but the tribal governments set up by the US Federal government are male-dominated and prioritise mineral extraction as a means of economic development. There are Navajos struggling against this and Janene Yazzie is one of them. She’s a young and dynamic water activist, whose family has been personally affected by uranium contamination.
In Flint I was so impressed with Nayyirah Shariff, who started the organisation Flint Rising to challenge the state over the water. In a story about environmental injustice it was crucial to have an African American protagonist and she’s an eloquent community leader. But it’s important to show how contaminated water knows no boundaries when it comes to race and the poor white community is equally affected. Christina Murphy is a strong mother who has taken up the baton of activism, despite coming from what many might think is an unlikely background as a conservative Christian.
WW And there's a connection to Aotearoa?
LH At the UN Indigenous Forum, where I went with my Navajo protagonist Janene Yazzie, we met up with Doreen Bennett from the Māori tribe of Whanganui in the North Island. She told us how in a world-first a New Zealand river has been granted the same legal rights as a human being. It's the kind of different perspective indigenous people can offer, which might be key to protecting our waters for the future. She did invite us to New Zealand to learn more about how treating the river as a living entity is the correct way to approach management and conservation. The new status of the river means if someone abused or harmed it the law now sees no differentiation between harming the tribe or harming the river because they are one and the same. I'm now very inspired to visit New Zealand on a cultural exchange with the Māori, so watch this space.
WW Is the transition to filmmaking a challenge and if so in what ways?
LH Transitioning from thinking like a journalist to thinking like a filmmaker is a difficult process that I’m probably still going through. In news you’re looking for the top news line of the moment, but a documentary might not come out for a year. So you have to develop the story and the characters. In a sense you have to cast your characters and see who is going to be able to sustain interest and have a journey that you can follow to tell the story through.
Instead of being a objective reporter, you’re looking through the eyes of your character and telling the story through them. So the principles are somewhat different. Yes, I still fact check and have some expert interviews, which is where my film style is journalistic. But the narrative is driven by the lives of the people I’m following. The BBC motto is balance, but film isn’t about balance. I will be fair, but not balanced. It’s a story with points of view.
WW Are there any influences that are especially important to you as you make Water Protectors?
LH There are a number of journalists and filmmakers that I like a lot. My favourite documentary is The Act of Killing by Joshua Oppenheimer, co-directed by Christine Cynn and Anonymous. I also loved Five Broken Cameras by Emad Burnet. But these masterpieces took many many years to make and the style is different to mine. I also like Michael Moore and John Pilger and Louis Theroux, but I’m not in my own documentary so it’s not really what my film looks like. So I suppose the closest inspiration really is the movie Erin Brockovich, about a single mother who becomes a legal assistant and almost single handedly brings down a California power company accused of polluting the city’s water supply.
WW Women hold key roles in your project: Lauretta Prevost is your cinematographer, Taylor Miller is the editor. Was this a conscious choice?
LH I didn’t set out to intentionally have a predominately female crew, but I’m happy it turned out that way. I think it’s important for women to be supported in a male-dominated industry. However, I just hired people whom I gelled well with, who got what I was trying to do and are passionate about the subject.
Lauretta Prevost spent three months in Standing Rock and so did another cameraman Tom Jefferson, who has also come on board. Taylor is on my wave length when it came to editing ideas and aesthetics.
I think the key to working well with the people you’re filming with is to build a relationship of trust. Being honest and non-judgemental are important qualities for people to be able to open themselves up to you on camera. I don’t think it makes a difference if you’re a man or a woman.
For the BBC I have worked on quite a number of rape and abuse stories and then I do think it makes a difference being a woman interviewer/cameraperson. For this film I have sometimes been living with my protagonists, so it probably has helped that I’m a woman yes.
WW Your work has always been as a reporter from the outside of the communities you report on. What's different about Water Protectors from say Michelle Latimer’s RISE: Standing Rock? During this project, have you met with resistance to your work, as an outsider and discussion of story sovereignty; and if so, how has it been resolved or begun to be resolved?
LH I make a virtue of the fact that I’m a total outsider and I don’t bring too many preconceptions to the subject. I’m British Sri Lankan, so my perspective is fresh. I’m not trying to tell the Native American story or African America struggle, I’m telling an America story with powerful Indigenous voices and African American characters and your everyday white Americans. Rise: Standing Rock is made by Native filmmakers and it tells their story with their voice. There’s no interlocutor filtering their narrative for a white audience. Which is great. This is what happened too much in the past. Indigenous people’s history and voices have been whitewashed and distorted as a result. Luckily more Native Americans have a bit more freedom and space to take back the narrative and start the process of decolonisation. But America is still racist and there are many obstacles in the way.
I don’t know how the film will be received by these communities when it’s finished, I’ll have to wait and see. I can’t give the inside view, I am offering something different. How these three communities of Americans are dealing with environmental injustice and lack of clean drinking water. Whether they’ll be able to come together over their common cause will be a test of American race relations.
WW Who do you see as the Water Protectors' audience? Is it a different audience than the BBC's?
LH The audience of the BBC is pretty wide and diverse across the world. They are people who are interested in international affairs, predominantly in between the ages of 30-55 years old. America is the BBC’s second largest and fastest growing audience, so in that respect I hope to capture that American audience. Clean drinking water is the top concern for Americans amongst all other environmental issues and has been for decades, according to Gallup polls.
The film itself isn’t partisan, some of my main characters are Trump supporters, some are Democrats and many are neither. So people who are concerned with access to clean drinking water or people who are interested in American race relations will be interested in this film.
WW Last September, you were awarded the prestigious Knight Wallace Journalism Fellowship at the University of Michigan, to investigate the Flint and Navajo Nation water crises and you studied Environmental Justice, Native American Literature and big data journalism. Are there some key things you learned?
LH I learned a lot from my Knight Wallace Fellowship about America and race relations. I’m still learning. Some key takeaway facts from my environmental justice class is that the majority of polluting factories and facilities are put near black communities. The majority of toxic waste is dumped on Native American lands or nearby.
America was built on segregation and that legacy remains. Before water systems were built there were a number of terrible yellow fever and cholera epidemics in the country’s new cities. The rich people had homes in the countryside or suburbs, away from the crowded areas. They often had their own clean water sources too, so they did not contract the diseases as much. But the upper classes put two and two together and came up with five. They believed they did not contract disease because they were superior and looked upon favourably by God. Sadly I wonder if some of that superior attitude persists today, that somehow the poor and exploited are exactly where they deserve to be.
WW You're crowdfunding for Water Protectors. What stage is the project at?
LH I’m only a third of the way through filming, so I hope I can raise the funds to finish the film. The crowdfunding is a fair start to the fundraising process. Thousands of people have shared and liked the trailer on Facebook, but that’s not yet translated into donations at a rate that I would like it to have. I’m also applying for grants at foundations and film funding competitions.
WW Will you become a full-time filmmaker now? Have you got another film in mind?
LH Whether I become a full-time filmmaker or not really depends on the success of Water Protectors. I certainly hope I will. I have some other rough ideas, but for now I’m totally focussed on Water Protectors.
Leana on Twitter
Here's a clip from Flint, where people are badly poisoned from lead in the water and have to rely on bottled water.
And here's Leana talking about the work.