Falmouth native Emmett Brennan at the Sonoma County tiny home that he often has to evacuate because of wildfires, in a still from his film “Reflection.” Photo courtesy of Emmett Brennan

Filmmaker Emmett Brennan is considering moving back to Maine from his home in California, but not for the reasons you might think. 

“It’s a deep question of when and where to return back East,” said Brennan, director of the startlingly evocative new documentary “Reflection: A Walk with Water,” which premiered at the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival earlier this month.

“For the last four years, I’ve had to evacuate, each time deciding what to leave and what to take, and then leaving for weeks at a time,” he said about living in his idyllic, tiny home in the woods of California’s Sonoma County.

Geography buffs might know that the area in question, some 20 minutes from Santa Rosa, is right in the path of some of the most recent – and most devastating – wildfires in California’s increasingly ashy history. We see Brennan in his film preparing food for himself and his cat in that snug but cozy home, and it seems just as peaceful as Brennan insists it was supposed to be when he undertook the task of building the house while he was editing “Reflection.” Says Brennan, “They’re married in my heart. It was really special that the house ended up in the film.”

But Brennan is preparing to return to Maine (somewhere in the midcoast) to avoid the fiery fate he knows is awaiting so many Californians. Speaking of the endless wildfires that have scorched untold thousands of acres this year alone, the filmmaker states, with grim certainty, “It’s imminent. It’s right there. It’s intense.”

And, as Brennan’s film shows, it’s entirely avoidable. 

“Reflection: A Walk with Water” is a beautifully shot and lyrical 80-minute pingpong match between alarm and hope. Unsurprisingly, Brennan says that the common denominator in many environmental crises is water, an essential resource whose scarcity is born as much from human mismanagement as rainfall totals. One of the most eye-opening facts presented is that Los Angeles’ reputation as a desert only kept alive through massively disruptive diversion of the waters of the Owens Valley is belied by the fact that the area receives more than enough rainfall to meet its needs. As Brennan (whose filmmaker brother and co-producer Nick has been featured in this column) puts it, “Water moves in a very particular way, and we’ve disrupted that.”

The film, which divides its time between footage of the silent pilgrimage of Brennan and a group of activists raising water awareness by walking the entirety of the Los Angeles aqueduct and portraits of people looking for ways to undo a century of unwise human water policy, grew out of Falmouth-raised Brennan’s innate desire to make a difference.

“There’s this feeling of grief and existential anxiety that lives in my body concerning the changes occurring on this planet,” explains Brennan, “so I decided to create media that was supportive of good people doing good work.” Having shot a web series spotlighting those similarly community and environmentally minded folk, Brennan realized that water – it’s scarcity and management – was “foundational in everybody’s work.”

So “Reflection” was born, and has already garnered serious acclaim at Tribeca as Brennan takes his film on the festival rounds this summer and fall. Watching a documentary about a seemingly insoluble problem (like global warming and the degradation of our environment) can be a self-defeating enterprise, the project’s inevitably depressing history and bleak predictions robbing viewers of the will to act. “Reflection” avoids that by interspersing those unavoidable facts of American recklessness and short-sightedness with counterbalancing individual tales of illustrative “good people doing good work.” 

An ecology-minded farmer explains how his family’s method of water-retaining agriculture allows for more growing on less land. An ethical grazer runs through the ways that rotating her herds through different grazing areas keeps the soil alive, and less prone to fires. Activists create a pond in the dry California earth to trap the rain, their reclaimed wetland granting rebirth to the artificially desiccated landscape. A city planner shows how runoff-flooded neighborhoods are transformed into environmentally beneficial, water-conserving oases of inner city greenery, while he touts the city’s plan to turn a massive gravel pit into a lakeside city park as one step in righting L.A.’s historical squandering of its deceptively plentiful water. 

“Reflection” makes the point that it’s not a lack of rain that spawns California’s drought and the attendant wildfires, but the fact that cities have been designed to repel water, drain it and send it out to sea as quickly as possible. The water cycle is disrupted, biodiversity dwindles and, ultimately, Los Angeles pumps in essentially the same amount of water it could happily harvest, if we’d all just be a little smarter about it. As Brennan asserts about these efforts to both understand and correct the devastating chain reaction of humans’ stubborn unwillingness to see themselves as part of the natural cycle (and not its master), salvation will come yoked to “building a relationship with the natural world.” (And listening to the hard-earned wisdom of the region’s historically hounded and scattered Indigenous people would be a fine place to start, according to the film.) 

As for the future, Brennan says that optimism is a choice he’s willing to make. “The reality is that I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he says, “I choose to tell hopeful stories, to open up humanity to more uplifting possibilities.” As one water expert in “Reflection” puts it to end the film, “As long as we’re waking up in the morning, it’s another day to get it right.” As Brennan’s film notes, however, it’s our choice as a species how badly we’re willing to make the effort. 

You can learn more about “Reflection: A Walk with Water” at the film’s website and its Facebook page. At the website, you can sign up to be notified when this thought-provoking film will be available to view in your area. 

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.


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