(Toronto) When documentarian James Burns and Apache guitarist Stevie Salas decided to create a film about the ongoing impacts of the water crisis on Indigenous communities, the two knew they wanted the final piece or an exploration of identity and its connection with the most abundant resource on Earth.
The result is an ambitious 104-minute documentary that blends real, unscripted moments with scripted vignettes to go beyond the model of using statistics and experts to shine a light on an issue that transcends geographic boundaries.
The film Boil Alert follows Mohawk activist Layla Staats as she visits communities across Canada and the United States affected by boil water advisories and First Nations whose water has been contaminated by toxins. Throughout the film, Staats shares his own personal struggles as someone reconnecting with his Mohawk identity.
“It was important that we tell a story that wasn’t just about water, but also about someone going on a parallel journey to find themselves,” Burns said in an interview.
“I think it creates more empathy. »
Boil Alert will premiere Friday at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).
Burns and Salas previously worked on the 2020 documentary, Water Walker, which followed Anishinaabe activist Autumn Peltier as she advocated for clean water at the United Nations.
For their latest project, Stevie Salas used the connections he made through the music world and his Six Nations of the Grand River production company, Seeing Red 6 Nations, to find the perfect person to give life to his vision.
Salas was introduced to Layla Staats about three years ago through her brother, musician Logan Staats, who also makes a cameo appearance in the film.
Staats had produced his own mini-documentary on water accessibility and expressed interest in being the face of the filmmakers’ larger-scale project.
But it took Burns and Salas to encourage Staats to let down his guard and invite viewers on his own journey.
“She really had to sit down and bare her soul. She really had to express everything in front of everyone,” Stevie Salas said.
“It was the only way the story could be effective and motivate others. »
Filming began in 2021 with the crew visiting the isolated Oji-Cree community of Neskantaga First Nation in northwestern Ontario, which is under a boil water advisory for 28 years – the longest in the country.
They traveled to Grassy Narrows First Nation, an Ojibwe community also located in northwestern Ontario. The First Nation has spent decades battling governments to respond to damage caused by a paper mill, which dumped tons of toxic mercury into a nearby river in the 1960s. Residents are grappling with long-standing mental and physical health problems due to mercury poisoning.
Across the border, Layla Staats spoke with members of the Navajo Nation who are still living with the impacts of the 1979 Church Rock nuclear disaster in New Mexico – called the largest radioactive accident in history. history of the United States.
Much has been written and documented about these communities, but James Burns believes it is important to focus on the “most egregious” examples of water insecurity.
“It begs the question: ‘Why hasn’t anything been done yet?’ “, did he declare.
“We need to continue to shine a light and give people in these communities a voice to talk about what’s happening there. »
At the heart of the documentary are the stories of residents living with neurological disorders due to mercury poisoning or young people who have never had access to clean water in their lives and the impact this has on their health mental.