Documentary Review: ‘What Lies Upstream’

Greetings again from the darkness. “Issues-related” documentaries walk a dangerous and fine line. If done properly, they can be informative, educational and even act as calls to action. On the other hand, they can be biased, manipulative and even blatant propaganda (Hello there, Michael Moore!). Because of this, my defense shields are usually at high alert when I sit down to take in a film such as this latest from Cullen Hoback (TERMS AND CONDITIONS MAY APPLY, 2013). 

Mr. Hoback identifies as an investigate filmmaker, and that’s a pretty accurate description of his process. He spent two years in West Virginia’s “chemical valley” after a 2014 chemical spill by Freedom Industries. It was only due to the smell and color of the drinking water that the public became aware of the spill of the substance identified as MCHM. Trucked in bottled water became the only safe source for drinking, cooking and bathing for the more than 300,000 who were impacted. As frightening as this seems, the true horror comes from what else Hoback uncovered in his interviews and legwork.

It’s only once this network of government, industry and agencies begins to unravel that our eyes widen and we get an inkling of the real danger. Mr. Hoback never shies away from dramatizing a moment or event, but that doesn’t soften the frustrations we experience while being informed that companies and factories provide their own water testing results to agencies such as EPA, who then provide a review of the data as compared to “acceptable standards”. When the CDC is called in to examine medical records of those impacted by the polluted waters, a quick “no issues here” rubberstamp is provided and no further digging is done. 

Two recurring players in this saga are Dr. Gupta and Randy Huffman. Mr. Huffman is a director of West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, while Dr. Gupta is originally an outspoken caution flag waver who sees the obvious oversights and mistakes occurring in safety tests and communication. It’s interesting to see the transformation of Dr. Gupta from caring medical scientist to self-protective politician during this period; while Mr. Huffman seems to move from clueless government head to concerned leader. Of course, all of the specifics seem to fall into a gray area due to Mr. Hoback presentation style, but clearly something isn’t right.

The biggest takeaways here are that it seems the agencies are more protective of their turf than of public safety. Industry and lobbyists are apparently more directly involved with actually writing bills than we previously imagined. Misrepresentations and outright fraudulent data (along with faulty testing processes) can put the public’s safety in peril … at least until the water smells so bad that everyone notices. Given that much of the details and data are sketchy here, it leaves little doubt that we should be vigilant and involved in our questioning of those responsible for our safety. 


The film will open In New York ( and Los Angeles ( on January 12 and VOD/DVD on January 16 (Gravitas Ventures).

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