Drowning Academic Freedom

Troubled Waters: A Mississippi River Story
Written, Produced, and Directed by Larkin McPhee

In Review

When Larkin McPhee was commissioned by the University of Minnesota to direct a documentary about the health of the Mississippi River, the filmmaker decided to focus on three critical images: the river’s watershed, which resembles a human circulatory system; the aquifer, a major source of drinking water for much of America; and a satellite image of farmland along the river valley, much of which lays bare and exposed to wind and water erosion.

film promotional card showing a flowing river

Troubled Waters: A Mississippi River Story, examines the connections between industrial farming and high nitrogen levels caused by runoff pollution, the health of the world’s third longest river, and the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico – the river’s final destination. The documentary also features farmers who employ new technologies or age-old conservation measures to avoid releasing harmful sediments and nitrogen runoff into the watershed.

Far from coming across as a whistle-blowing exposé, Troubled Waters is an evenhanded study that – after opening with ominous signs of what awaits our water supply if we continue with business as usual – features solutions, and solution-makers, to our problems. Consider the farmers who are returning their harvested farmlands into pastures, or those exploring innovative solutions. The documentary ultimately implores farmers, scientists, and citizens to work together.

That Troubled Waters generated so much controversy in Minnesota before its ultimate release hardly reflects the quality and tone of the film, and more the American political landscape of today.

“My idea was to show how land-use activities here in Minnesota are connected to the dead zone,” explained McPhee, following the film’s premiere on public television last fall. “Scientists estimate that we are currently losing soil at 10 times the rate at which we can replenish it.

“I think it helps us to grasp a profound truth, which is that a single drop of water here in Minnesota is interconnected [with water everywhere]. You could see the river as a living, breathing organism, and what we put there will potentially do harm.”

University of Minnesota invited a flood of criticism last fall when vice-president Karen Himle temporarily blocked the October 5 showing of Troubled Waters on Twin Cities Public Television and a premiere at the Bell Museum of Natural History, allegedly due to questions about the film’s scientific accuracy.

“Initially we were very baffled as to why the film was being pulled,” McPhee said. “The film is scientifically accurate. These claims that the film vilified agriculture misrepresented the hopeful nature of the film.”

According to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Himle’s husband, John Himle, is CEO of a local public relations firm that represents the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council, a trade association that lobbies for agribusiness – the very agribusiness the movie implicitly criticizes for harming the Mississippi watershed.

University officials eventually backpedaled and let Troubled Waters be broadcast as scheduled. But by then, the film had become engulfed in headlines about curtailed academic freedom and the heavy hand of big-business propaganda.

“Karen Himle relinquished her post in January, but denied that the controversy over Troubled Waters – and calls for her resignation – had anything to do with her move. She called her return to the private sector a personal decision.

McPhee recognizes that the controversy over academic freedom ultimately gave Troubled Waters more attention than it might have otherwise received. Two showings at the Bell Museum in October registered near sellout crowds. “The silver lining is that we drew a lot more people to the film to watch, which is fabulous,” the director said.

Asked whether the sustainable farming movement will always be at war with big agriculture, McPhee disagreed with the premise of the question: “What I like about this film, and how I approach this topic, is that there are no villains in this story.

“What you really look for is stories that counteract those scary images, the idea of having commercial farmers and local farmers and organic farmers all working together. This is the world we live in. It’s diverse, and we need diverse solutions. We all have something to offer, including urban dwellers, who must decide how to treat our lawns.”

—Jacob Wheeler

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