SXSW 2017: Director Marina Zenovich talks water and power

We sat down with Emmy-winning director Marina Zenovich (“Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired”) about her new documentary film for National Geographic Channel, “Water & Power: A California Heist.” The film examines pivotal events in California’s notoriously corrupt history of water manipulation. Marina was at National Geographic Further Base Camp located at Vulcan Gas Company as part of a three-person panel discussing upcoming NatGeo documentaries. 

Photo courtesy of National Geographic Channel / Photo credit: Ted Gesing

How did you get involved with this documentary and NatGeo?

Marina: I’ve been making documentaries for over 20 years and it’s like I finally have a hip profession because everyone wants to make a documentary. I was approached by Jigsaw Productions, Alex Gibney’s company and they asked me if I wanted to make a film about the politics of water in California and they pitched it to me like “Chinatown” the documentary.  This was really about a series of meetings that took place in the 90s that made a public resource go to a private company and water districts. I’m originally from California in the Central Valley area and it intrigued me that I knew nothing about it. I just immersed myself in research.

I had local connections in the Central Valley because my father was a legislator in Sacramento and it turned out they had already identified Mark Arax as someone who we would potentially follow. I had never met him but I followed his writing. I knew his brother I was thrilled to be able to tap into him as a resource and film him. When you have a documentary it’s really like what are we going to film to tell this story. We had Mark Arax, the journalist who’s writing a book about the water wars in California and we had Adam Keats, a young lawyer who is basically fighting the Monterey amendment.

What did you find during your research that was surprising or shocking to you?

Marina: Part of what the team uncovered was the Monterey amendments which were something that I knew nothing about so that was interesting. In working with Mark we uncovered the pipeline and we happened to be filming when he found it. It was a tough story to tell in the sense that you don’t have necessarily a beginning, middle and end. It was a combination of interviewing people and trying to piece together a story about this natural resource that companies are trying to privatize. When you’re making documentaries it happens organically. We interviewed Adam Keats who was contacted by people in Paso Robles that kind of created a link in the sense that the Monterey amendments happened in the mid-90s now Paso Robles can happen in the future where all these companies are buying what they call investment farming. The whole film ended up being about greed and how much is enough and it just seems like with some of these people and companies it’s never enough.

Water is a human right and it’s something we always felt would be there. I think when Pat Brown set up the state water project he was trying to bring people to California. One of the things I unearthed in my research was when they were setting up the state water project which is basically a man-made river running through the state. The head of the department of water resources at the time was campaigning for Proposition 1 which was for the money to fund the state water project. One thing that he said on the campaign trail was “vote now, ask questions later.” It was the 60s and they were trying to bring people to California and they didn’t know what California would become. What I loved is when I read that it was kind of vote now ask questions later I felt like the movie was us asking questions.

Photo courtesy of National Geographic Channel / Photo credit: Ted Gesing

It’s scary thinking that companies can come in and take our water. What can everyday normal people do to stay informed about water management in their area?

Marina: Stay informed and find out where your water is coming from because a lot of people don’t know. Do as much as you can to get involved, either donating time and money to politicians who are doing the right thing. Conserve. There’s a funny moment at the end of the movie where the guy who hasn’t had water gets water and he turns it on and he’s washing his hands. At a screening, people were laughing because he finally has water but he leaves it running while he’s washing his hands and someone said no one on the East coast will understand why people are laughing. It’s bigger than that, but you can do your part, like shut the water off when you’re brushing your teeth. Every little bit helps.

This film is about a very serious topic in the sense that water is a human right but a lot of corporations and certain individuals feel that it isn’t a human right. People should pay attention to what is happening in the world especially with our new president and try to get involved. It’s a scary time in terms of what’s going on in the world and basically you should just fight the power.

“Water & Power: A California Heist” will be premiering on National Geographic Channel  sometime in spring. 

About Further Base Camp

Go Further with groundbreaking augmented reality, interactive robotic art, concerts, and inspirational talks and interviews, plus a birthday party & Pi-Day celebration for Albert Einstein. See for full program schedule.

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