In light of Blackwater’s run at SoCal and with eyes still freshly remembering race riots that led to the re-segregation and then militarization of the private (think hummers, gates, and neighborhood armed security), the Sundance Channel’s decision to air Waterborne seems like a mere extension of history more than a comment on our recent times. Director Ben Rekhi’s 2005 film, Waterborne, tells the story of “everyday” citizens gone crazy in a post-9/11 world when someone poisons LA’s water supply. The city is instantly militarized as a result of the waterborne attack and like true angelenos most of the city runs to their cars trying to escape to clean water. As the film unfolds, we are privy to a Los Angeles populated by two groups of people: white people (yuppie pot smokers/dealers, OC extras, computer programmer reservists, vets of Iraq, & two white poor people) & Asians (Korean wife Lindsay Price & daughter and Indian store owners). Black people apparently all died or miraculously escaped LA along with the Latinos. It is also an LA that lets fear and perceived scarcity start to unravel even the closest ties. The low budget film makes serious use of tight shots and introspective dialogue to make its main characters complex even the face of their static and some times trite interactions.
The interesting thesis of Waterborne is that terrorism is as much a part of the N. American landscape as anywhere else. The film takes a critical in depth look at the militarization of the area, resulting in two deaths (one innocent, one guilty but possibly avoidable) and disparities between military families who have and ordinary citizens who have not. The military narrative is a clear indictment of current times: questioning the efficacy of dependence on child soldiers with limited life experience and reservists who just want to go home and the government’s quick turn to militarization to solve crisis before all the intel is in and alternatives explored.
It also defines terrorism in a way that many people of color and some feminist groups have been pointing to since 9/11 – the terrorism of hate crimes be they the use of anthrax and bombing threats against women’s clinics, the nooses popping up around the nation, or the successful Oklahoma City bombing. The film’s less obvious version of this narrative is the ongoing racial assaults against the Indian shop owners – the mother is beaten, their store is looted, the son is called racist names and held at gunpoint – both because they are brown and because they are mistaken for Muslims.
The casting of Price, who has a small role as Jasmine married to one of the white U.S. soldiers deployed in LA, is particularly interesting for the ways that she stands in both as Korean American and as Vietnamese. The actress is Korean American, and in this way she no doubt represents the Korean American -African American conflict during the most recent LA riot of early 1990, her near demise in a looting incident bringing the narrative home. I think she also stands in for Vietnamese, both to the untrained N. American eye who sees all people of color as alike and those who will recognize Price for her roles as a Vietnamese woman in several of her earlier parts. Twice in the film, Jasmine is saved by her GI husband first when he pilfers supplies for her and then when he abandons his post to rescue her from a looting attempt. The two images of her combine to give us the terrorism here (LA riots spurred first by the terrorism of notorious LA cops and then the terrorism of racism and race hatred played out in the streets) and abroad (the Vietnam war, in and of itself and as a stand in for Iraq) narrative that runs through out the film.
Perhaps the most subtle exploration of the terrorism within analysis, is the quick dissolution of white society. Not only do white soldiers kill youths in this film, but white youth go crazy in this film holding people at gunpoint, beating up friends trying to help them, etc. And it is a white man, quiet, educated, “normal,” who actually poisoned the water supply. These moments are countered by the rational white people, who keep trying to bring reason and calm to the racism, selfishness, and violence their fellow angelenos are displaying. Yet their sympathetic characters ring all too problematic from where I sit: while the naive blonde from NY gives a speech about the uselessness of anger in the face of racism to her Indian boyfriend after he confronts her for siding with a racist cop after his mother is beaten, the sympathetic reservist shoots a looter without assessing the situation first and after abandoning his post and putting his unit in danger to save his wife (NOLA much?), and the bestfriend who has consistently questioned the actions of his quickly melting down friend/relative charges at the water he has stolen at gunpoint and facilitates his friend’s demise.
In the end, Waterborne fails to really give an in depth comment on the current dissolution of N. American civil rights and the war on terror. These issues seem like a convenient way to explore the complexities of the N. American condition in somewhat flattened out ways. Not only is the vision of LA oddly devoid of two of its largest populations, its racial explorations seem oddly like the platitudes of Crash rather than the complexities of Lone Star. Failing to trust its audience enough to understand that the film is trying to tell us about how fear and hate breed little acts of terror by Americans against Americans, the final voice over of the film spells it out for us. I think, like me, the Director secretly knew he had not told as good a story as he had set out to do.
If you happen to see Waterborne it is worth thinking about what it is trying to accomplish and its moments of failure and success. In light of Blackwater’s soon to be military base in SoCal, I think it would be worth having the conversations Waterborne is trying to foster.
My friend over at endless screed recently commented on the Blackwater issue by saying that in the Dominican Republic they have a pattern of charismatic despotism that has a very specific pattern one piece of that pattern is the militarization (complete with barracks and bases) of the city and the highways. Naomi Wolf has compared the slow loss of rights for “safety” occurring in the U.S. to Germany, Italy, China, and other places in her new book. One of my favorite Russian theory scholars in the poli sci department here (who will remain nameless b/c I don’t have permission to quote) has likened this period to “the rise of Stalin.” Had Waterborne been a better movie, I think it would have made these connections as well. As it is, the film certainly tries.