Spend enough time in and around the ocean, as surfer/photographer/filmmaker Elizabeth Pepin does, and you’re bound to see—or smell—something disgusting. For example, the beach at Rincon Point, the internationally known SoCal surf break on the border of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, has some of the highest bacteria count in the state year in and year out. A word to the wise: Don’t forget your wetsuit.
The aging septic system at Rincon Point "supports" 72 homes, and this juncture of scenic beauty, recreation, hygiene and approaching disaster is one of four stories Pepin tracks in her current project, Wasted! If you’ve been waiting for a punk-rock doc about sewage and wastewater treatment—go on, admit it—it’s in the pipeline and (the economy willing) heading your way by year’s end.
"Our sewage lines and our wastewater treatment facilities are the least-funded of our utilities," the San Francisco filmmaker reports. "And it’s starting to haunt us. San Francisco is a classic example—most of our sewage lines were put in after the ’06 earthquake and they’ve been breaking for a while."
Although the city’s A-1 drinking water flows straight from Hetch Hetchy, most municipalities are finding their water supply polluted with pharmaceuticals, agricultural runoff and other chemicals. It’s bad enough that so much water is wasted as a result of leaky infrastructure. "When we can’t even drink the water we do have," Pepin notes, "we’re screwed."
Pepin has filmed 40 percent of the one-hour documentary so far, shooting on hi-def with the intention of stirring in archival footage and lo-res images in post. It’s the same aesthetic she and co-director Sally Lundburg used for their acclaimed 2007 portrait of surfer Sarah Gerhardt, "One Winter Story."
"I don’t mind mixing up different formats," Pepin explains. "I think it’s cool. It gives the film a richness and a texture that straightforward HD films don’t have. This isn’t a "Frontline" [piece] or straightforward PBS documentary. I want this to be artistic."
Of course, the form of a film can go a long way to attracting viewers to a topic that isn’t particularly sexy. To that end, Pepin has signed up two internationally known San Francisco animators who shall remain unidentified for the time being. "That’s one of the most expensive aspects, so until I get the money I don’t want to name names," Pepin says.
But she can reveal that the Wasted! theme song and a couple of instrumentals are being written by Neal Casal, the guitarist for Ryan Adams and the Cardinals, with British eccentric Robyn Hitchcock chipping in a few new melodies as well. For those of you who’ve been humming Black Flag’s "Wasted" since the second paragraph, Pepin is looking into using that cheery little ditty as well.
All of these elements add up to a dirty little ball of fun, allowing Pepin to plumb the depths of a nuts-and-bolts social problem without losing the audience. "Talking about infrastructure and government is boring," she declares without prompting. "So I think you have to use stories of everyday people and how the issue affects everyday people—that’s how you grab viewers. The easiest way to make this film would be to interview people from the water board and government officials and scientists, and it would be a big yawnfest. What’s more interesting is someone who lives next to one of the most polluted rivers in the United States, the New River."
That last statement is based on firsthand experience, incidentally. The day she shot in Imperial County alongside the river, Pepin was plagued by a bloody nose, upset stomach, terrible headache and watery eyes.
The threats to our drinking water—not just in California, but nationally—are sobering indeed. "The pharmaceutical industry is not going away, and they have no idea how to fix it," says Pepin. "The technology is not affordable to any community right now. Is it cheaper to not clean it up, and just deal with lawsuits later on? Here we are, 30 years later from Erin Brockovich, and it’s still going on."
So the trick with a film like Wasted!, and which An Incovenient Truth accomplished so neatly, is not to leave the audience feeling hopeless at the end. One of the storylines that Pepin has mapped out involves a community in Humboldt County coming together to create a wetlands that’s proven so successful (and economical) that it’s a showcase for other places with similar wastewater problems. But unlike the Al Gore movie, which listed everyday steps moviegoers could take to slow global warming, Wasted! won’t provide individual actions against dirty water (cue the Standells).
"I don’t think it’s [about] things you can do at home," Pepin says. "People have to come together in their communities and decide that this is something that’s important to them—that they don’t want bacteria counts off the charts when they go to the beach, or their kids to get sinus infections from swimming in the ocean. Or when they drink water [from the tap] it has levels of birth-control pills or Prozac."
Pepin, who was the day manager at the Fillmore in the ’80s, owned Neurotic Records at 7th and Folsom from 1991-95 and has been an associate producer at KQED since 1997, is simultaneously fundraising, researching and shooting Wasted! As if that’s not enough, she envisions starting production this summer on a doc about kids and surfing.
"I’m more optimistic that it’s going to be easier to raise the money for this film than the last one," she confides. "For One Winter Story, I thought it would take a year and it took five. I sold my record collection. I had 10,000 records and now I have 400 LPs and 2,000 singles. You just have to pick subjects that you get so obsessed you just cannot finish it, no matter what."
While the website for her production company, Potrero Industries, is under construction, Pepin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The photography exhibit "Harlem of the West," organized by the Museum of Performance & Design and curated by Pepin and Lewis Watts (co-authors of "Harlem of the West: The San Francisco Fillmore Jazz Era"), continues through March 7 at the Jazz Heritage Center, 1330 Fillmore St. (at Eddy), in San Francisco.
Notes From the Underground
Jay Rosenblatt (Human Remains) and Lourdes Portillo (Señorita Extraviada) were named 2009 Fellows of United States Artists. It’s a career-recognition award rather than a project grant, so the chunk o’ cash truly goes to support the artist. . . . 20th Century Fox has set a July 10 release date for I Love You Beth Cooper, Chris Columbus’s first movie since 2005’s Rent. . . . The Bay Area didn’t place a single title on the shortlist of 15 feature documentaries in the hunt for a 2009 Oscar nomination, but nabbed three of the eight slots in the short docs category—Steven Okazaki’s The Conscience of Nhem En, Ruby Yang and Thomas Lennon’s Tongzhi in Love and Megan Mylan’s Smile Pinki. The Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael screens the trio this Sun., Jan. 11, at 4 p.m.
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