Above water, about movies

Three weeks ago, IHE Delft and the festival Movies that matter organized the screening of “Above water”, a documentary on climate changes implications for access to water in a small village in Niger. The documentary, and the discussion afterward, suggested a reflection on why movies matter and how video can help in communicating water research.

Credits: Marchez sur l’eau

“Above water” (“Marchez sur l’eau”, 2021) is a documentary by the Senegal-born French actress, director and activist Aïssa Maïga. The story is set in the small village of Tatiste, in the Azawak region of Niger. Because of an unprecedented drought, people face a water shortage. Existing wells are running dry and the villagers send a formal request to the local authorities to bore a deeper and mechanic well. While waiting for the authorities’ response, to sustain their families three women decide to leave the village in search for a job in town, or in neighbouring countries like Nigeria and Benin. The documentary portrays the everyday life of those who stay, particularly the children: attending school, walking long distances to fetch water, gathering for meals and evening stories, celebrating an unexpected rain with baths and games. The plot of the film is reduced to the minimum, leaving plenty of room to enjoy the stunning photography and the intense expressions of the villagers, all non-professional actors. The movie ends with the return of two out of three of the women, and with the arrival of a team of workers that drill a borehole and install a mechanical pump.

The movie was followed by a panel discussion moderated by Ama Van Dantzig (Movies that Matter), with Eddy Moors, IHE Delft rector, Elisabeth Lictevout, director of IGRAC (International Groundwater Resources Assessment Center), and Jean Gildas Tapsobas, student at IHE Delft MSc program in Water Management and Governance who is from Burkina Faso and has been working in the WASH and humanitarian sector in the region. All the three started by sharing how they had been moved by the movie. That telling and intimate reference quickly let space to the technical and political considerations that were expected by such a panel: the (un)sustainability of deep groundwater use and exploitation, the challenges to reach the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the threats posed by jihadist groups in the Sahel and their implications for the development of the region and for the provision of basic services, the political economy of natural resources extraction, notably uranium, in Niger. All these issues were left out of the documentary, too simplistic according to some comments by the audience.

Credits: Marchez sur l’eau

Missing water, missing mums

Those remarks made me thinking about what do we expect from a movie and how we watch it. For me “Above water” is a movie about absence and unpredictability. The absence of water, but also the absence of the mother of the main character, the girl through whose eyes and voice the story is told. And the unpredictability of their return: it might rain or it might not; the authorities might reply to the borehole request or they might not; the mothers will come back or maybe not. We do not know, the villagers do not know, and there is nothing in the story that give us a hint about what will happen. We simply wait in absence.

The message of the movie, in my view, can be boiled down to the idea that missing water is like missing your mum. It is an emotional and powerful way of linking climate change and migration, a telling example of one of the functions and power of movies: the ethical function of foregrounding personal stories of “normal” people, and pushing the audience to empathically identify with those stories and with the feelings of their protagonists. In my view, “Above water” skillfully exploits this mechanism, bringing back people stories and feelings in the too often de-humanized debate on climate change and migration. In public debates of most European countries, apocalyptic narratives about climate refugees portrays future scenarios in which masses of thirsty Africans will flow to Europe to avoid the catastrophic consequences of climate change in their home countries.

Without dismissing the seriousness of the problem, “Above water” recalls in a poetic and intimate way the complexity of migration that remains hidden in mainstream debates. For instance, the fact that the decision to migrate does not depend on one single reason – in our case climate change – but is instead the result of interwoven political, social, cultural and geographical factors. Or the fact that one often leaves with the idea to come back as soon as possible. All of us, I believe, we had at least one in our life the experience of missing a beloved person: and such feeling allows to empathize with the main character of the movie, who misses both water and her mother. Such mechanism works through contrast as well. For instance, watching the movie made me also reflecting on how predictable my life is – including in terms of water management – and what a privilege this is. Movies and videos are mostly about emotions. And emotions do not tell us much about what we are looking at, rather how we are looking at it.

A workshop to turn your abstract into a vlog

You do not have to be a professional filmmaker to exploit these mechanisms of the video. If you are interested in exploring how to elicit interest and emotions around your work, presenting in an original and captivating way your research, then join the webinar Vlog your abstract, on May 9 at 12:00 CEST. In this EGU (European Geosciences Union) pre-conference workshop, our interdisciplinary team (Juliette Cortes Arevalo, Roland Postma, Kathryn Adamson and myself) will guide you in the making of a short video with your phone ready to use ahead of next conference: do not miss it and register here!


Emanuele Fantini

Emanuele (@emanufanti) is senior lecturer and researcher at the Water Governance Chair group of IHE Delft. He works on water, politics and development in Ethiopia; media, science and water conflicts in the Nile basin; visual research methods. Emanuele hosts the podcasts "The sources of the Nile" https://nilewaterlab.org/podcast-the-sources-of-the-nile/ and Water Alternatives Podcast http://www.water-alternatives.org/index.php/wat

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