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Woodstock Film Festival 2010 Preview: Jon Bowermaster's "SoLA" 

Hurricane Katrina was not the first wholesale devastation suffered by Louisiana, nor will British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion be the last insult.

In the alternately lyrical and sobering SoLA: Louisiana Water Stories, longtime journalist and filmmaker Jon Bowermaster, 56, traces a chronic pattern of maltreatment of this delta state. The wholesale suffering, Bowermaster explains, stems from several factors: among them, natural gas and oil companies, illegal loggers, corrupt politicians, wetland developers. Even the heroic Corps of Engineers, the fabled levee builders, miscalculated; their exuberant taming of the waterways of the mighty Mississippi has eroded the fragile ecosystems that traditionally protected residents from hurricanes and floods.

Bowermaster, a resident of Stone Ridge for 23 years, is rarely at home. His 11 book projects have taken him to places as remote as the Antarctic Peninsula and Aleutian Islands and French Polynesia, transported in modes as varied as seaplane, kayak, sailboat and on foot. (He refers to those past exploits as “adventure for adventure’s sake.”) A few years ago, he switched gears to making films for National Geographic Television, but maintained the same themes: an examination of the tenuous and increasingly dangerous relationship between man and nature, accompanied by an unabashed plea for environmental sanity.

Everyone has a tale to tell of this beleaguered area and Bowermaster locates some of the most urgent, heartfelt and eloquent testimonies for SoLA. We meet environmental scientists, professors and neighbors who woke up one day to the growing pollution around them and became environmental activists. If dissenting voices are absent in this bracingly informative documentary, Bowermaster offers no apologies. “We didn’t go and talk to the petrochemical plant owners, we didn’t go and talk to the oil companies. Over the years I’ve talked to enough of those guys. I know what I’m going to get from them. So we made more of a personal piece about Louisiana by just allowing people who live there to speak.”

Interweaving first-person stories with facts and figures—and generous amounts of buoyant Zydeco music—SoLA builds the argument that state and federal governments have simply sold out the Pelican State to big business, which has fecklessly exhausted its resources and utilized it as a glorified sewer. (Louisiana plays host to one-third of this country’s hazardous landfills.)

SoLA was the first domestic documentary for Bowermaster in more than a decade. He looked forward to the relative ease of working in this country, having access to modern resources and, especially, speaking the same language as his subjects. “Of course, we get to Louisiana, I get off the plane and I have no idea what anyone is saying. I can’t understand a word. It’s like another world: there’s different foods, different music, truly a different culture than the rest of the US.”

Filming began in July of 2008 with a crew of five people on a modest budget and continued over the course of two years. Everywhere Bowermaster’s crew went, they bore witness to environmental destruction: the harvesting of old-growth cypress trees. The systematic drying up of the wetlands. The swift disappearance of the Louisiana coastline—a football field’s worth every 30 minutes, scientists estimate. The marked reduction of the fishing industry, due to environmental pollution, caused by fertilizer runoff. Most damning of all, the petrochemical plants that stand menacingly along the coast. The spike in local human birth defects and disease account for the area’s current sobriquet: “cancer alley.”

Bowermaster was wrapping the film and heading towards post-production in April when British Petroleum provided the filmmaker with a dubious epilogue to SoLA. Adding material regarding the oil rig explosion and its aftermath was not an easy task, Bowermaster says. “We went back down and opened the film back up and re-interviewed everybody and changed the structure of the film and added a coda about the current events. The mess in the Gulf changed the tenor of the piece.”

Films like SoLA may appear to be a political broadside, but Bowermaster considers himself a storyteller, not an activist. (That assertion, however, does not prevent the director from making SoLA available to environmental groups such as Riverkeeper for fundraising.) In addition to making films and writing books, he visits schools to relay his experiences. “That’s all I’m doing; I’m going out and bringing these stories back and trying to share them with as many people as possible.”

For more information:

click to enlarge A still from Jon Bowermaster's "SoLA: Louisiana Water Stories"
  • A still from Jon Bowermaster's "SoLA: Louisiana Water Stories"

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