Journalist and filmmaker Jon Bowermaster spent two years in Louisiana working on his documentary SoLA: Louisiana Water Stories. Just as he was completing his survey of the major water issues facing the state, the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010.
"We stopped finishing the filming," Bowermaster says. "We went back and reinterviewed people. But it wasn't about the events of the rig — all of a sudden the story of water and Louisiana was on the front page and you could watch the disaster on the CNN ticker live and in real time."
Initially, Bowermaster was interested in the dead zone in the Gulf caused by chemicals dumped into river waters from 31 states that feed the Mississippi River. In SoLA, he looks at the loss of coastal wetlands caused by the construction of industrial canals and other water management projects. He compiles the damages caused by pollution from the petrochemical industry and explores the changes to the Atchafalaya Basin, North America's largest contiguous swamp.
Besides presenting a frightening assessment of the damage to the environment and the effects on the people who depend on it, such as fishermen, he got a warning from many Louisianans he interviewed.
"People said, 'Whatever you do, don't let this shit happen in your backyard,'" he says.
That was the inspiration for his next film, Dear Governor Cuomo, which he just completed and will screen (along with SoLA) at the Social Change Film Festival & Institute in New Orleans this week. It's about fracking (aka hydraulic fracturing or hydrofracking), the process of extracting natural gas by forcing a mixture of water and chemicals into the ground. Bowermaster lives in New York state, which does not yet allowed fracking (34 states do), but has been exploring the possibility. His just-released film is part concert, part fracktivism, as it combines an anti-fracking concert event with information on the dangers of fracking.
The Social Change Film Festival & Institute moves to different locations for each event. It includes feature films, documentaries and short films. Water issues are the main theme for the New Orleans event, and one of the highlights is Beasts of the Southern Wild, Benh Zeitlin's film shot in south Louisiana. The weekend event also includes panel discussions and workshops on filmmaking and activism held at Dillard and Loyola universities, the Contemporary Arts Center and Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center.
Bowermaster began his career in journalism and became known for a National Geographic documentary series he did about the oceans. He used kayaking and adventure stories as a means to explore water issues around the globe.
"We went kayaking in Vietnam, where one-third of the population lives on the coast and deals with pollution," he says. "We went to the Adriatic, where there are no fish because it was overfished. We went to Antarctica, where the story was about the ice melting faster than anyone predicted."
Since 1999, Bowermaster had been making one documentary a year about water issues around the globe. In the '90s, he wrote a story for Audubon magazine about Dow Chemical polluting waters in Morrisonville, La. In 2008, he wanted to make his next documentary in the United States.
"My interest is the relationship between man and water," Bowermaster says. "There's no better state than Louisiana for that. ... In south Louisiana, just about every family has someone who works in the fishing industry and someone who works in the oil industry."
At the festival, Bowermaster will screen both films and talk about how he is both a filmmaker and fracktivist in Dear Governor Cuomo. He helped organize the protest concert (featuring Natalie Merchant, Joan Osborne, Citizen Cope and others) and he documented it.
The Social Change festival also screens Forgotten Voices: Women In Bosnia by standup comic Jennifer Rawlings, who got her start at the Improv in Los Angeles with the help of Budd Friedman. Rawlings also does a lot of tours to entertain American servicemen, and her ongoing tour is titled I Only Smoke in War Zones.
Since 1999, Rawlings has made one to three trips a year to entertain the troops, often in war zones. She has toured Afghanistan and Iraq, at times performing in areas that were taking shell and mortar fire.
Her entry into filmmaking involved little more than buying a Panasonic DVX camera and setting out for Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina.
In 2007, she read a news story in which a woman in Darfur told a reporter she hoped the fighting would end soon so things could return to normal. But Rawlings knew the damage and upheaval wrought by war would linger for decades.
The comedian had performed several times in Bosnia, and she wanted to talk to women who had survived the war and its aftermath. She sought out women of different socioeconomic and religious backgrounds and recorded their stories.
"I started by asking about their happiest moments," Rawlings says. She also delved into the more serious and enduring aspects of the conflict.
"I am a firm believer that individuals can have an impact on the world — one person at a time, one conversation at a time," Rawlings says.
Being a comedian helps her reach audiences.
"A lot of people don't recognize you can have light in dark moments," she says. "You can use humor. If you can get people to laugh, you can get them to listen."