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Regional Archives The Altamont Enterprise, November 19, 2009

Water First
Filmmaker Hart says, “I’m doing what I’m doing because people are dying”

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

ALBANY — The music stays with you. African women sing as they work the fields, swaying to the rhythm, the sounds as vivid as the colors in their long skirts. Malawian children sing, too, as they clap their hands, waiting for water.

Amy Hart’s film, Water First, is a gloss on the eight Millennium Development Goals set by the United Nations in 2000 to relieve poverty in developing nations by 2015.

“I’m doing what I’m doing because people are dying,” Hart told an audience at Albany’s Madison Theatre on Sunday where her 45-minute documentary was screened.

Her film records the work of Charles Banda in rural Malawi. He gave up being a fireman to found the Freshwater Project in 1995. Hart herself traded in a life of doing public relations in Hollywood for taking on a cause in which she passionately believes.

The film was shown earlier this month at the American Public Health Association convention in Philadelphia. The theme of this year’s conference was “Water and Public Health: The 21st Century Challenge.” Banda made the trip from Malawi to be there and said this week of the reaction to the film and his Freshwater Project, “People were excited, overwhelmed.”

Landlocked Malawi in southeast Africa ranks among the world’s most densely populated and least developed countries, with more than half of its 14 million residents living below the poverty line, according to the Central Intelligence Agency online report on Malawi; 85 percent of Malawians live in rural areas and the economy is predominantly agricultural.

Hart had produced a shorter version of the documentary in 2007 and told The Enterprise then that the women of Malawi will carry bucketfuls of water atop their heads, walking barefoot along dirt pathways at 4 a.m., and sing. Comparing the Malawian culture to the American, she said, “We have everything, and all we do is bitch, and they have nothing and all they do is sing.”

Hart also said then of the approach she took in her first film, “You kind of look at the universal through the specific… 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?”

Hart told the crowd at the Madison on Sunday, “I wanted to do a film on a global issue. Water connects everything….Globally, more than one billion people do not have access to clean water…four thousand die every day.”

Her film includes a clip of Kofi Annan, a Ghanaian diplomat who served as the seventh secretary-general to the U.N., stating it is “fully within our power to eradicate poverty and hunger” by 2015 “but only if every one, rich and poor alike,” acts. He sternly warns, “If the goals are not met, we will all be poorer and less secure.”

One by one, the film then elucidates the eight Millennium Development Goals, using water as the common denominator and focusing on Banda’s efforts as the specific example from which viewers can understand the general problems.

The first goal is to “eradicate extreme poverty and hunger.” The film shows children eating a bit of cornflour mixed in hot water for breakfast while stating that 70 percent go to school without breakfast. Other scenes show crops being tended, planting the question of how they can be grown without water.

The second goal is to “achieve universal primary education,” and Hart’s film shows how girls are shortchanged in their schooling because they have to spend so much time and effort hauling water. Also, the lack of latrines causes girls, raised to value modesty, to drop out of school. “She cannot take the challenge of urinating in public,” says Banda. “Girls need privacy.”

He also says, “If a woman is educated, then we have a better future as a country.”

In a question-and-answer period following the Madison screening, a woman suggested linking schools in Malawi with others around the world through an online program. Hart responded that the village schools have no computers and no electricity. Her film shows attentive children sitting on a bare floor as they bend over their work, a teacher walking among them.

The third goal is to “promote gender equality and empower women.” Hart illustrates this by filming a 12-year-old girl walking five kilometers for water at four in the morning. All of the women in the village make the same trip several times a day, the documentary says, carrying up to 40 pounds of water with each trip. Also, the film says, they are subject along their route to sexual harassment, including rape.

Banda’s project is educating communities where wells are drilled that everyone should have a role in the home, doing chores, not just the girls and women. The film pictures a young man happily doing laundry while his wife is at home cooking.

The fourth goal is to “reduce child mortality.” One out of seven children in Malawi will not reach the age of 7, Banda says; more young children die from water-borne diseases than any other cause. The film focuses on a mother who lost her 6-year-old boy to cholera; her face is frozen as she states her loss.

“We are the voiceless,” says a woman sitting near her.

Banda involves those in a community, including the women, in maintaining the well and using good hygiene. We expect them to say, “We have done this ourselves,” he says of building the wells and a better way of life.

The fifth goal is to “improve maternal health.” The film shows a nursing mother and explains that many don’t wash their hands before nursing or after urinating or defecating. The Freshwater Project, aside from developing wells, also builds latrines with simple washbasins nearby so hands can be washed.

The sixth goal is “to combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases.” Hart’s film shows a line of people at an HIV/AIDS clinic, waiting for medication,  which can’t be taken effectively without clean water.

The camera pans a cemetery for a long time as the narrative voice states, “If he has no water … what he drinks is death.”

The seventh goal is to “ensure environmental sustainability.” Hart’s film shows Malawian men bicycling with bundles of firewood to sell, and another scene where, following government recommendations to cut down on illness from water-borne diseases, a woman boils water over a fire. The film states, “You cannot protect the environment in the absence of trees.”

Banda also says, “Most people use the bush as a means of defecating…When rains come, this will drag all this to the river.” Trees, however, filter waste from water.

Finally, the eighth goal is to “develop a global partnership for development.” Hart’s film says that most Malawians live on less than a dollar a day, and features a watchman returning from work. He earns $35 a month. When Hart asks him if he could buy bottled water, he laughs.

The film shows several weeks of drilling for water with an old rig that needs repairs. It has since failed completely, leaving the Freshwater Project without a drill; Banda must contract out for the work, which he said causes delays and distrust.

In the film, Banda says that he is frustrated, embarrassed, and demoralized yet concludes, “But I’m sure there is a way forward.”

He says how, to meet expenses, he has had to let two women trainers go.

Banda goes on, regarding government spending, “Now, most of the funding is going for war. I don’t think that’s a fair partnership.”

He concludes of the Millennium Development Goals, “I very much doubt that every single goal can be achieved in the absence of water. Water is life….I have chosen to die for my people so that they get the clean water.”

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