Navigating tricky territory with mixed results, documaker Tin Dirdamal addresses the water-war issues plaguing the Bolivian city of Cochabamba and arrives at uncertain conclusions in “Rivers of Men.” In contrast with the polemics in the Gael Garcia Bernal-starring “Even the Rain,” the dramatized version of Cochabamba’s struggle, Dirdamal casts a skeptical view on the notion that the burg’s water shortages were a case of the people vs. corporate interests. Fest interest has been weak thus far, but a sales company with clout could raise the docu’s profile.
With narrator Juan Malebran selected to speak the (uncredited) personal text — an odd choice in the final analysis — Dirdamal begins with a sympathetic view of the popular battle with the municipal government, which decided in the late ’90s to privatize the local water supply via Bechtel Corp., in what became known as the Miscuni project. Vid footage of the street battles and sieges, the product of terrific archival research, is startling to behold, especially compared with “Even the Rain’s” mild re-creation.
To his credit, Dirdamal applies a journalistic approach, interviewing a wide range of interested and informed parties without falling into a stilted talking-heads format. Protest leader Marcelo Rojas offers a strong perspective on the widespread opposition to Miscuni, while a closer observer of the project itself, Eduardo Valdivia, provides a counter view and debunks certain myths regarding the project, such as the notion that the private owners were planning to charge an across-the-board fee for rainwater.
In the end, and with considerable nuance, Dirdamal appears to side more with Valdivia’s argument than with Rojas’, which has triggered more than a little controversy for the docu, particularly in South America. Retired army commander Jose Antonio Gil (looking fit and trim on his 10-speed bicycle), who delivers an engrossing account of his role in leading troops against the city uprising and refusing to obey orders to deploy lethal force, emerges from the film with dignity and courage.
The finale issues a vague message on the use and pollution of water that places blame on everyone involved; Cochabamba, despite all efforts by various parties, remains in severe drought conditions and lacks a decent water supply. Lensing varies from beautifully judged exterior panoramas to rough-and-ready shooting on the fly.