Raindance 2019: ‘Thirst For Justice’ Director Leana Hosea On The Women Fighting Against The Odds For Clean Water In America

Leana Hosea’s documentary Thirst For Justice follows the story of a few women in Flint, at Standing Rock and on the Navajo reservation as they band together in the fight for justice and their basic right to clean water.

Close-up Culture’s James Prestridge spoke to Hosea to learn more about the film ahead of its screenings at the Raindance Film Festival in London (20 and 22 September). For ticket info

Q: When did the journey to make ‘Thirst For Justice’ begin for you?

This journey really started in 2010 when I first visited the South West to do a story for the BBC on the proposed resurgence of uranium mining in the Grand Canyon area.

As part of the report I visited the nearby Navajo reservation, where I heard there had been some historic uranium mining from the 1940’s to the 1980’s. But nothing prepared me for what I saw.

Communities were living amidst some 1,000 abandoned uranium mines and piles of waste. When the uranium price crashed in the mid-1980’s the big mining companies declared bankruptcy and left behind piles of mine waste and open pit mines, which filled up with rain water. Children swam in them and the sheep – the food staple of the Navajo – drank the water and so did the people. 

Helen Nez, now an elderly lady, told me that her sheep were born with deformities, some without eyes. Then her children were born with a DNA depleting disease and died painful deaths at a young age. 

Instead of investigating environmental factors, the white doctors told her it was because Indians practice inbreeding and labelled the disease Navajo neuropathy. This disease has now been linked to uranium contamination. 

I had an interview with a lady one morning, but she didn’t turn up. With the roads as terrible as they are on this impoverished community, I assumed she had got a flat tire and didn’t think anything of it. But a week later I found out she had died the morning of our interview of kidney cancer. Drinking uranium contaminated water has been linked to kidney disease and reproductive cancer.

I knew this story was big and that I needed to spend more time to investigate it to do it justice. Soon after I returned to London as I got a BBC posting to the Middle East – just in time for the revolution and spent a number of years there. But I didn’t forget my time on the Navajo.

When the crisis in Flint happened, it led me to think there might be a link or a systematic problem going on. I secured a prestigious Knight Wallace Journalism Fellowship at the University of Michigan to investigate this and the result is my film, Thirst For Justice.

Q: I understand the film focuses on three different women – Janene from the Navajo, African Americans Flint activist Nayyirah and blue-collar stay at home mom Christina – who are brought together by this issue. Can you tell us about these three women and what you took away from the time you spent with them?

A: Janene Yazzie is an eloquent young woman who having got her degree at the prestigious Barnard college in New York, went back to the Navajo Nation to work for the rights of her people.

The Navajo Nation and other Native Americans have been repeatedly lied to and are the victims of genocide. So gaining trust as an outsider was not an easy task. But Janene welcomed me into her family and over the months she opened up to me on camera and shared not just the story of her people’s struggle with contamination, but her own. 

I learned about the indigenous perspective on the natural world and realised the importance of their voice in the environmental debate.

Nayyirah Shariff is a community leader in Flint, a reader of history and an expert in organising. She was there from the beginning of the water crisis educating residents about what was going on and the political shenanigans.

Jill Scott played her in the US prime time television film of the Flint Water crisis. But as an African American Muslim, she’s not had quite the same coverage as others. But that’s Nayyirah anyway, she’d rather do the work behind the scenes.

So when I met Christina Murphy at one of Nayyirah’s meetings and she was so open about her life and her struggles, I knew I had found my third heroine.

Christina is an open book with her emotions and her family life. She’s not your typical activist. The Murphy’s are your typical rust belt white Christian family. Her husband Adam even worked at the GM car plant, before the water made him so ill he could no longer work. So when they were let down by their government in their country which they love so much, it made their world fall apart.

But I feel that with Christina the love for her family helps her fight on through the illnesses and struggles the crisis has heaped on her. As an independent filmmaker sometimes I’d wonder: what the hell am I doing? I have no money, I’m making this alone – but then I’d think of these amazing women and look at what they are going through. I drew strength from them.

Q: How do corporations and the government work to evade culpability for the terrifying levels of contaminated water in the US?

A: State-corporate crime refers to crimes that result from the relationship between the policies of the state and the practices of corporations. Like on the Navajo reservation, where large corporations, such as Kerr McGee and Exxon, mined uranium and their only customer was the United States government. Their mines weren’t up to any kind of standards, they didn’t have to clean up their toxic mess and they left people very, very ill to this day and many have died.

With Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline you have big banks and high roller investors – including until recently President Trump. So the Native American people can protest all they want. But when it comes to money it’s likely that the people of Standing Rock are going to lose.   

In Flint Michigan, the state appointed financial manager switched their clean water supply to the Flint river to save money. When General Motors complained it was eroding their car parts the government of Michigan switched their water back to a clean source. But people – who were complaining about rashes and their hair falling out – were ignored. 

Government and corporations are working together to get what they want and if poor people are sacrificed – well that’s just part of doing business.  

Q: Did you face any barriers or pushbacks to making this film from corporations or the authorities?

A: As an independent filmmaker corporations and the authorities refused me interviews.

At the protests in Standing Rock journalists were being arrested and charged with felonies. So when the camp was being evicted, I couldn’t film in the camp for fear I’d get arrested too.

In the end while filming another pipeline protest in Wisconsin, I was arrested at the side of the road. It didn’t matter that I was a journalist who was working, not protesting. I was charged, strip searched, put in a prison orange jump suit and jailed until I made bail the next afternoon. My camera was confiscated for almost 2 months. The oil pipeline company levied $85,000 in compensation against me and the five others arrested.

Eventually my connection to a high powered First Amendment lawyer in New York, Henry Kaufman, meant the District Attorney finally dropped my charges after six months. I felt so stressed, hounded and intimidated, which is exactly what the point was and I fear to deter other journalists and filmmakers from covering such events. 

Q: What was the most shocking or concerning issue you encountered while making this film?

A: When I found areas more radioactive than Chernobyl on the Navajo Native American reservation, even my Nuclear Engineering professor – who lent me her Geiger counter – was shocked. She told me that 24 hours at that site gave me the equivalent of the maximum dose of a nuclear worker. People live around these sites. There’s no fences. It’s appalling. 

Another shocking moment was when Professor Laura Sullivan, herself a Flint resident and member of the city task force, relayed to me some of those backroom conversations. Flint city officials didn’t want to be giving out bottled water to people for free and wanted to end the distribution.

They suggested to the doctors that people who need clean water should get a prescription for it and only these people with a prescription could get bottled water. A prescription for clean water sounds like a dystopian nightmare if ever I heard one. 

Q: What does it mean to you for ‘Thirst For Justice’ to screen at the Raindance Film Festival in London?

A: Several years ago I did a Raindance documentary filmmaking course. Soon after I pitched my documentary about rhino poaching to the BBC and got commissioned to make Rhino Wars.

Raindance gave me the foundation to be a filmmaker. To have my first independent feature documentary shown here and to be nominated for Best Feature Film and Best UK film is an amazing honour. Elliot Grove is so approachable and supportive, which is rare in this industry and we are lucky to have him and Raindance in London. 

Q: You recently did a piece for BBC London about pollution in The Thames. What do you feel Londoners and the rest of the UK can learn from the people featured in ‘Thirst For Justice’?

A: Clean water is so basic and vital, we all take it for granted. But according to the United Nation, by 2030 demand for clean water worldwide will outstrip supply for 40% and there won’t be enough for everyone.

The head of the UK Environment Agency said that climate change and population growth means the country is facing an existential threat. Sir James Bevan said that “wasting water should become as socially unacceptable as blowing smoke in the face of a baby”. So anyone who watches this film and thinks it can’t happen to them. Think again.

America is one of the world’s richest countries in the world and people lack access to clean water. The people in this film never dreamed their drinking water would make them so ill it threatened their lives. The water wars are beginning.

Q: And lastly, are you hopeful that there will be justice for the people of Flint and the Navajo Nation?

A: I doubt the people in Flint or the Navajo Nation will get justice, but I hope the situation can improve.

On the Navajo reservation there has been some clean up. The Tronox settlement of about $5 billion should clean up an estimated 200 abandoned uranium mines. But there’s hundreds of other mines, not to mention the impact on people’s health and lives lost. Navajo uranium miners were eligible to apply for compensation from 1990, but many of the miners died before they were able to receive any money.

In Flint there are a number of court cases, civil and criminal, but the wheels of justice move slow. About a third of the water pipes have been replaced in Flint and as water quality expert Dr Marc Edwards said Flint’s water is now just as crappy as the rest of America’s water. But people still want free medical care and compensation for all they lost. They will never trust the water nor the authorities again. 

You can see ‘Thirst For Justice’ at the Raindance Film Festival in London (20 and 22 September). For ticket info


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