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Filmmaker talks water ahead of premiere

Staff writer

Florence will move to the forefront of the latest effort to document problems with water availability when a new half-hour documentary, “When the Well Runs Dry,” has its premiere showing at 2 p.m. Saturday at Masonic Center.

Lawrence filmmaker Steve Lerner teamed with award-winning documentarian Reuben Aaronson of Los Angeles to create the documentary about the intimate relationship between rural Kansans and their water.

The Tallgrass Express String Band will perform. A panel discussion is planned after the screening. It will feature two Kansas State University professors, a Kansas water engineer, and a Flint Hills rancher. The musical performance, screening, and panel are free of charge.

Lerner previously worked in Florence on a documentary titled “Florence, Kansas.”

The Kansas Humanities Council will make the video available on its website. Lerner said it would help arrange other showings throughout the state. Public television stations in Topeka, Wichita, and Kansas City also have expressed interest in showing it, he said.

Q: What initially sparked your interest in this topic?

A: A story I had remembered about Florence, Kansas, about their city water, which comes from a spring that’s on private land. I had made a documentary in Florence a couple years ago about the town and its history.

This wasn’t in that film, but I had heard a story that people in the town were quite worried because they had originally back in 1920 or something signed a 99-year lease to have access to this spring. The lease was running out, and they weren’t sure how they would negotiate with the descendants of the original landowner.

Q: Water’s much more in the national conversation because of California than it was when you started. Will we see a lot more of this in different places?

A: We were talking with former Marion mayor Peggy Blackman, and she’s talking about blue-green algae, then you turn the radio on and it’s in the Pacific Ocean across several states’ coasts.

The first settlers called Kansas “the great American desert,” and we’re growing tons of corn and have huge feed lots way out west, but that’s all based on irrigation. If there was no irrigation, there’d be none of that, the whole western economy would collapse.

Think about this little fact: The water infrastructure in the United States is in such bad shape that some five billion gallons of water are lost every day from leaking pipes, from water treatment plants, and it would cost hundreds of billions of dollars to repair that; according to the experts that are studying it.

Q: So this documentary centers on Florence or is it more rural Kansas?

A: You get a feeling for Florence, but we’re also up there at the Marion Reservoir, we’re in Sedgwick, Kansas, and we’re in Copeland, by Sublette. We’re in Chase County as well.

When we shot the film, most of the film, the drought was full-bore on, a very bad drought. People were worried about running out. Well now there’s a lot of rain. But ranchers have a long memory. They don’t think now just because it’s raining, it’ll never get dry again. They know it always will oscillate between dry and wet.

Q: What does Los Angeles filmmaker Reuben Aaronson bring to this project?

A: We were childhood friends, and I worked with him on his very first film, so I’ve been trying for more than a decade to hook him into doing another film with me. Before we get too old to do anything, you know?

I called him. I said, “OK, listen, we’ve been talking about this for years. Let’s make a film.” He said, “OK, where should we go, Mexico? Peru? Chile?”

He’s spent some time in South America. He and I both speak Spanish, so we were looking into some projects in Mexico. Then I kept thinking about this little town in the Flint Hills that I’m very attached to from all the time I’ve spent there.

I said, “Well, why don’t we make one in Florence?” He said, “Great, when will we go to Italy?” I said, “No, I mean Florence, Kansas,” and there’s this dead silence on the phone.

But he decided to come for this because he developed a very strong feeling for the area.

One of the things with this film, and we hope it does do this, is that the imagery of the landscape speaks loud and clear, and helps tell the story about why it’s so important to people. You really see some of the beauty of Marion County in this film. It’s not just talking heads. You see people in their life situation.

So he brings an eye for imagery that is really quite unique.

Q: The press release included the word “tenderly” to describe the film’s tone. I found that interesting. What makes a documenter go tender?

A: Basically our film is a bunch of water stories of different kinds spoken in the voices of Kansans. There’s no expert narrator, no professional actors; it’s just all Kansans telling how water impacts them in their lives.

It’s our hope that these local stories will resonate with larger stories. The focus is people telling about their own lives around water. That is a serious business for people that live on the land or live in a small town.

What’s great is once you get to know a community like that, you’re not exactly an outsider anymore. It’s a wonderful feeling; you can come in and talk to people.

Q: So what happens “when the well runs dry?”

A: We are water. We depend on water. Our food we eat depends totally on water. On the one hand, everybody knows this. We may know it in our head but not in our heart.

I’m hoping people will walk away from this film realizing at a deeper level how central the issue of water is to everything.

There’s no drought there now. I’m kind of glad because showing a film that says “when the well runs dry…” when the wells are not running dry and the creeks are running full, it’s more interesting in a way.

People are not as currently frightened about it, but they don’t forget about it, either.

Last modified July 16, 2015

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