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Regional Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, June 7, 2007

Hart follows her passion to Africa, makes first film

By Tyler Schuling

ALBANY COUNTY — "Madzi ndi moyo" — water is life. Amy Hart, director and producer of Water First:Living Drop by Drop, believes this, and is doing what she can to spread the word.

Hart, who runs Hart Productions in East Greenbush, spent a month in Malawi, Africa, where she filmed her documentary short. She’s traded in a life of doing public relations in Hollywood for taking on a cause in which she passionately believes.

Her film features Charles Banda, who formed the Fresh Water Project in 1995. He has been a fireman, a preacher, and a taxi driver, but he changed his life to start the non-profit company after he saw two people die from cholera, Hart said. His private company aims to provide fresh water to communities.

Water First won second place for best short documentary at the IV World Water Forum in Mexico City when it premiered. Hart will be presenting her film and Banda to audiences in the Capital Region over the next two weeks.

"I just felt really passionate about the topic and wanted to do something about it," said Hart. Water First is her directorial debut. She used her own money and donations from friends and family to make the film.

Hart spent a month in Malawi, a small country in southeastern Africa, last year. Many households there are without fresh water, and residents have to make long treks throughout the day to other wells miles away to get water. While filming in Malawi, Hart spoke with families who had lost relatives to cholera.

While focusing on Banda and his organization, Hart said her film isn’t about just one group in need of water. "It’s a film about the need for this to be a priority," she said. Hart said the film also aims to raise awareness for the need to fund similar projects.

"Hopefully, more funding will go towards water efforts not just in Malawi but everywhere," she said. To date, donations from the Capital Region have helped fix broken wells and provided for over 10,000 people in Malawi, Hart said.

Malawi is one of the 10 poorest countries in the world; government reports say the average income is $600 a year, Hart said, adding that it’s "not a lot of money."

"People can’t afford to install water in their homes, and, even to pool their resources and build a well is cost-prohibitive," she said. "My feeling is that, as a leading nation, as one of many strong nations, it’s important for us to look at the needs of developing nations and the needs of humanity.

"What can we do to improve the human condition across the board" And my feeling is that water is the number-one issue that can make the biggest difference," said Hart. "It affects everything."

Women, water, and community

Banda is a "very charismatic guy," Hart said. "He’s so devoted.

"He really empowers communities so that they take ownership of it, and he always makes the water committee at least 60 percent women because it’s a culture where women don’t necessarily have much of a voice," said Hart.

"[Banda] encourages them to take charge of it and to have a voice and speak out, and that’s really new for a lot of these women," she said. "Fresh Water Project really sees water as an entry point to social development"They do all kinds of empowerment, sensitization, and community building to really help the community empower themselves. And water is the first ingredient to do that," she said.

"They don’t see it as: You just punch a hole in the ground and go away," Hart said. "It’s all about getting the community to take responsibility for it, and use it resourcefully and responsibly, and to see it as a shared resource and put it to use," she said.

Banda also holds gender-equality workshops. Ordinarily, women make long trips to faraway wells and carry the water.

When Hart was in Malawi, she filmed women and children filling buckets with water at a well. Two men came into view, and Hart was amazed. A Malawi woman then said, "Gender equality. You cannot develop without developing the men," Hart said.

"It was such a great moment," she said.

Hart also interviewed men.

"They were happy that they were now sharing in the chores," Hart said. "The wife had more time at home, and there was ‘less conflict, no problem,’ as they say. And they were happy. They had smiles on their faces," she said.

Hart said clean water reduces disease, infant mortality and maternal mortality, and improves the health of all people.

"It affects girls’ education because girls drop out if they don’t have water and"latrines at their schools. And, if girls aren’t educated, they’re more likely to stay home, get married younger, have more children, and that’s not something we need on this planet.

"In short, to me, water equals birth control, and results in population control, and population control has to be a concern for any intelligent person on this planet. We don’t want people to die of disease. We want people to be born into healthy families that can support them and the number one ingredient to a healthy family is clean water and basic sanitation," she said.

The cultures and social customs of the United States and Malawi are very different, Hart said.

"We have everything and all we do is bitch, and they have nothing and all they do is sing," she said. Americans might complain about their windshield wipers not working or their E-Z Pass malfunctioning, she said.

The people of Malawi will carry bucketfulls of water atop their heads, walking barefoot along dirt pathways at 4 a.m., and sing, she said.

The suicide rate in America is high, and the self-mutilation rate is insane, Hart said. Young adults and teenagers are cutting themselves, she said. "What is that" Why are we so discontent"" she asked. "We have so much. Something like that wouldn’t happen in [Malawi]. People are very close. They’re very joyous," she said.

Hart said she doesn’t equate poverty with the dollar. "There’s a richness to that culture that’s amazing, that’s moving and beautiful."

During a workshop where Malawi adults discussed a windmill, the men and women sat on opposite sides of the room. They sat two to each desk and left half the desks empty, Hart said.

In America, people sit down, hoping no one sits next to them, she said.

"There, they’re elbow to elbow all the time. They’re always smooshed up against each other"There’s an openness that’s incredibly strong and vibrant," Hart said.

"They survive in pretty meager conditions because they have so much spirit, and so much caring for each other," she said.

Mars and Earth

Hart said she gets passionate about water and questions American priorities.

"In this day and age, when we can literally send a spaceship to Mars to see if there’s water there or not, spend billions of dollars doing that, not just once — repeatedly — there’s no excuse why we can’t have running water in every village in Africa"Is water infrastructure expensive" Yes," she said. But a well pump is not expensive, costing around $5,000, she concluded.

"For all the money that we spend on development, the best way to address development needs is to make sure everybody has water first," she said.

When addressing an issue, such as AIDS, she said, people have to have clean water first before taking medicine.

"They’re washing [medicine] down with dirty water. They’re going to get sick and die anyway so you’re not really doing them any good by spending"billions of dollars on pharmaceuticals if they don’t have clean water to take their medicine with. You have to have the water first for anything — any of our major global challenges right now," she said.

Twenty percent of Malawi’s land mass is covered with a large lake on its eastern border. It is the third largest lake in Africa.

"That’s the irony," Hart said. "There is no shortage of fresh water in Malawi. It has a huge, beautiful lake," she said.

Malawi also has many rivers, streams, and fresh groundwater, she said, adding that, of about 800 wells, rarely does one go dry.

Hart called Lake Malawi "an asset," and asked: Why isn’t it being tapped into" The root of the problem, she said, is poverty.

"It’s a poor country"And why economics should decide who gets water, to me, that’s atrocious."

Everybody should have water, she said. The planet is "rich and resourceful" enough to provide everyone with water, she said.

While in Malawi, Hart was never without water. "I always had water because I had money in my pocket," she said.

"They don’t have money to go buy a bottled water or to pool their resources and drill a well," she said.

Outward in

Water is a "major problem" in many developing countries, Hart said. "It’s mostly due to the poverty," she said.

"Could less corruption help" Yes"The effort needs to go to the most remote areas of any country — to the rural areas — and work towards the capital," she said.

Typically, in developing nations, such as those in Africa, Indonesia, and Asia, and in India, development of water infrastructure or roads works from the capital regions and eventually moves outward to more remote areas.

"I advocate starting from the exterior of the country — the most remote areas — and making sure that those villages and communities have running water and basic sanitation and they also have fresh water"" she said.

People are more likely to stay in their villages if they have clean water and food, and diseases are kept to a minimum, she said. Keeping people in their villages slows urban migration, which is compounding the problem, she said.

"Life in rural, remote areas is not viable. One of the most important ingredients of a viable life is water," she said.

Farmers in India are committing suicide because they don’t have clean water to raise their crops, she said. The farmers’ water has been tapped out by corporations and has not been distributed well, she said.

"The focus of my work has been: Get the poorest of the poor water. By focusing on the perimeter of a developing nation, focusing on the more remote areas, you’re giving them a basic standard of life," she said. "You’re assisting communities that are receiving the least support."

Capitalism and bottled water

"Water is an area where capitalism is very dangerous," Hart said. "When I was in Malawi, if you put a bottle of water and a bottle of Coca-Cola side by side"you paid more for the water," she said. "That’s absurd."

Americans are buying more and more bottled water, Hart said. We’ve gotten used to bottled water, and rarely drink water from a faucet, she said. "Even in our own homes, it’s rare," she said.

"We always use bottled water, more and more and more by the billions," she said. "Bottled water is to tap water what the automobile was to public transportation. We used to depend on trains and buses, and they got us there, and they were efficient, and they were good for the environment because we shared the fuel that it took to transport us," she said. "Now, we’re drinking out of single plastic bottles instead of out of a tap."

Tap water "takes a lot less resources," she said, adding that, by drinking tap water, no fossil fuels are needed to transport water and plastic bottles are not produced.

"Fiji, for goodness sakes," she said. "Why are we importing water from Fiji" We have water on this continent. Think of the oil that it takes to move billions of gallons of water across an ocean and then across the continent when we have pipes in this country.

"I think that using water as a commodity to make money and encourage people to drink water out of bottles is actually criminal when you consider the impact on the planet," Hart said.

"We all have to think about the effect on the planet. There’s only one. There’s one environment. Global warming is real. We have to think about that," she said. "Why are we drinking our water out of plastic bottles that come on trucks when we have billions of miles of pipes in our ground, and our water is good""


"I wanted to make a film about water all over the world — go to every continent, show all the catastrophic problems," Hart said.

Water First is about 25 minutes long. Currently, Hart is working on a full length feature "going deeper" into the Malawi and Charles Banda’s experience, she said.

"If we can understand how one person has impacted this issue, and what his course of action has been — his devotion, his passion for it — it’ll ring more true to us as human beings.

"You kind of look at the universal through the specific. That’s the approach," Hart said. "Compassion is key"If you actually stepped into that person’s life, and grieve what they grieve for a moment, how could you not care"" she said. "That’s why filmmaking is important"The more we can step into other people’s shoes, the better off we are on a personal level and on a political level."


Water First will be showing at Bethlehem Town Hall on Monday, June 11, at 7 p.m.; Saturday, June 16, at the Rensselaerville Meeting House at 4 p.m.; Sunday, June 17, at the Unity Church in Albany at 10 a.m.; and on Monday, June 18, at the SUNY Plaza Board Room in Albany at 12:15 p.m.

For more information, visit www.waterdoc.com. All events are open and free to the public.

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