‘Troubled Waters’ opens at U

A panel discussion followed the controversial film’s premiere.
October 04, 2010

To Larkin McPhee, two filled premieres of "Troubled Waters: A Mississippi River Story" on Sunday offered a "silver lining" to several weeks of controversy.


Nearly 650 people saw the documentary at the University of Minnesota Bell Museum of Natural History. McPhee — the film’s writer, director and producer — said the added attention sparked by University officials’ call for further scientific review, which temporarily shelved the documentary, drew a larger crowd.


After both showings, a five-member panel including two farmers interviewed in the film, its director and two scientific experts, answered questions from the crowd.


The film analyzes the ways pollution of the Mississippi River in Minnesota has led to a growing dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. It traces the problem to agricultural practices on Minnesota farms, as well as runoff from urban lawns and asphalt.


The film begins with the story of a shrimp catcher in Louisiana who has experienced noticeably less shrimp in his nets as a result of the growing dead zone — the area where the Mississippi River meets the gulf and fertilizer runoff rich in nitrates has rendered it "as lifeless and alien as the moon."


Several Minnesota farmers were featured as those who recognize the effects of soil erosion on the watershed and have changed their practices. Dick Gerhardt, a corn farmer in Fairmont, Minn., who appears in "Troubled Waters," said the film did what it was supposed to do: begin conversation about what can be done to protect the watershed.


"People want to know how it works and how to make it work," Gerhardt said.


His wife, Diane, added that the film encourages individuals to recognize their contribution to the problem, rather than just pointing fingers.


"You can’t live in your own little corner as if your work doesn’t affect others," she said.


Questions from the audience ranged from agricultural technology to policy.


Prior to the panel discussion, Bell Museum Director Susan Weller requested questions be related to the content of the film rather than the controversy surrounding its release.


Gerhardt and his wife said they were initially concerned when the University halted the release of the documentary because they had not seen it yet.


On Sept. 7, Vice President for University Relations Karen Himle called for a postponement of the film’s Oct. 5 showing on Twin Cities Public Television, citing concerns over "commercial interests" in the film as well as its scientific validity. The University began organizing a scientific review.


The premiere of the film was reinstated Sept. 23, after Weller compiled evidence that a thorough review of the film had already taken place.


On Friday, TPT was given the go-ahead to air the film in its three originally scheduled time slots: Oct. 5 at 8 p.m. and Oct. 6 at 2 a.m. and 4 p.m, TPT spokesman Stephen Usery said in an e-mail.


McPhee said the University displayed "tremendous inconsistencies" during the process.


"All the explanations didn’t add up," McPhee said.


Though University President Bob Bruininks publicly supported Himle’s postponement of the film, he said last week that, as the issues unfolded, he recognized the issue as one of academic freedom.


"We immediately resolved to show [the film] as planned," Bruininks said in a Sept. 28 statement. "This is certainly not the first time the University and its leadership have stood behind the academic freedom of its faculty and staff with regard to complex or potentially controversial issues — indeed that is a fundamental value of the University."


In the statement, Bruininks acknowledged the situation, which will undergo a review, could have been handled differently.

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