In “Living Water,” the feature doc debut of Czech anthropologist Pavel Borecky, the forces of tradition and progress, conservation and recklessness are at war in the otherwise remarkably peaceful state of Jordan. The film makes its world premiere in the Testimonies section of the Ji.hlava Film Festival, which runs Oct. 27-Nov. 8.
With a long tradition of accepting refugees, including hundreds of thousands from Syria of late, the desert country finds itself set on a new path by Hashemite King Abdullah II, who dreams of turning the port city of Aqaba into the next Dubai. This, of course, will require rivers of fresh, clean water, a vital resource that’s increasingly scarce as farmers in villages of the vast Wadi Rum desert, developers and others drill down through a pre-historic aquifer, the Disi.
“I tried to structure the film around seasons,” says Borecky, who spent a year filming desert locations, irrigation projects and Bedouin farmers with a lightweight Panasonic Lumix G7 and a pocket full of neutral density filters. As we see, it’s not just summer droughts but also devastating flash floods that ravage the landscape.
The deep history of Bedouin herders and the struggle for survival comes through in archival footage, which also show the beginnings of technology promising to turn the desert green and provide water for all, narrated by the respected hydrogeology professor Elias Salameh.
Esteemed internationally as an expert, Salameh pulls no punches about the dire shortage of water in one of the driest countries on Earth, nor does he hesitate to heap skepticism on rosy Jordanian government promises. “I wanted to give him a stage and contrast his view with the local views,” Borecky says.
Indeed, the water crisis is multi-faceted with traditional farmers not always acting responsibly either, says Borecky, whose intrepid fact-finding mission is doubling as his doctoral dissertation in a visual anthropology at the University of Bern.
The Palestinian-born billionaire Sabih al-Masri, who has a cozy relationship with the king along with highly profitable investment deals, also comes under fire in “Living Water.”
“I wonder how the powerful in Jordan are going to react to this film when we bring it next year to Jordan,” Borecky says.
Borecky set out not just to explore the heightening conflicts over water that starkly illustrate the impacts of climate change but also wanted to raise the bar on environmental documentaries.
If nonfiction filmmakers can bring us “new enchantment, new awe in the face of ‘things’; this is the project we as storytellers need to immediately embark on,” he explains, arguing that too many films about the Earth and its endangered systems resemble celebrity endorsements. And while Leonardo DiCaprio personally experiencing climate change extremes in “Before the Flood” may raise awareness, a credible doc should focus more on what Borecky calls an “ecographic” approach.
That means incorporating “sensory ethnographic methodologies,” he says. “I challenge the anthropocentricity of the anthropological project.”
“How many genuinely environmental films do we have?” he asks, wondering if such films “bring us, as humans, any closer to radical post-extractive economies we so desperately need.”
Borecky, who is co-founder of the non-profit Anthropictures – for which “Living Water” is officially a research project – and has done field work centered on visual ethnobotany and community and urban development in Serbia, Peru, Estonia and the Czech Republic, isn’t shy about taking on big ideas.
“Living Water,” accordingly, considers the complex interplay of Jordan’s water problem. Bedouins who endeavor to keep up ancient traditions are pitted against those who want the country to grow and modernize – but they also sometimes undermine their cause by stealing more water than they are allotted on land granted to them.
Irrigated farms, meanwhile, were once promised to Jordanians as a vital step toward greening the desert while providing food security, but are now used by a handful of people with powerful connections who mainly export what they grow.
Top hydrology scientists are sidelined for speaking out about the danger of using up a one-time aquifer, which is growing increasingly stressed, while towns are restricted to water rationing.
For all his devotion to painting the full picture of hyrdrogeology politics and climate catastrophes, Borecky also feels the poetry and sense of eternity in the desert, conveyed effectively via his lyrical imagery of otherworldly red earth settings and the ethereal tones of John Grzinich’s sound mix and Shadi Khries’ score.
Screening in the Testimonies section of the Ji.hlava fest, a diverse collection of Czech and international docs taking on issues that “cannot be overlooked,” Borecky’s film stands alongside ambitious work such as Alvaro Longoria’s account of a fraught Arctic preserve, “Sanctuary,” Ai Weiwei’s immersion into the aftermath of the 2014 Mexican student abduction in “Vivos,” and Ron Howard’s account of life after the 2018 California wildfires, “Rebuilding Paradise.”