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TIFF 2023 'Boil Alert': Urgency of North America's water crisis exposed though a journey of identity

"The hope is that people will see this and come out of the theatre saying, 'This is unacceptable,'" co-director Stevie Salas said

Filmmakers Stevie Salas and James Burns had an ambitious task for the documentary Boil Alert: Expose the devastating clean water crisis in Indigenous communities across North America while also making a film that examines the concept of identity.

How they accomplished that was having activist Layla Staats lead the audience through First Nations reservations in the United States and Canada, as she not only shines a light on the risks of not having access to safe drinking water, but she also shares her personal path to connect with her roots.

"My papa would say, 'One day water would be gold. Protect the water. Whoever has the water at the end, they're going to be the ones surviving,'" Staats said at the beginning of the film.

From left: Stevie Salas and James Burns attend the
From left: Stevie Salas and James Burns attend the "Boil Alert" premiere during the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 15 in Toronto. (Photo by Darren Eagles/Getty Images)

'You don't realize that lake will kill you'

In terms of how Salas and Burns got to this place, it started when Salas went to Fiji with a friend who was treating local water and and putting in filtration systems as a response to people — including children — dying and getting sick from waterborne illness.

It's at that point that Salas said to his friend, "Why do I come three quarters of the way around the world to do this and we could be doing it back home?"

But his friend had no idea what Salas was talking about. Despite travelling around the world to fix water issues, he was unaware of the reality of the problem in North America.

The first reservation they visited was near Thunder Bay.

"What blew my mind was, ... it [looked] just like paradise," Salas said. "You don't realize that lake will kill you.

"It just blew my mind that ... you could have such extreme beauty and have it be a death experience."

They changed out the water filtration system there, started to film it and that's when a light bulb went off for Salas. He and co-founder of Seeing Red 6Nations, Bryan Porter, are in the "awareness business."—"We realized that maybe lack of awareness is more dangerous for Indigenous people than racism in some ways, because most people think they are racist, these guys hate us, they don't like us and they don't give a sh—. That's not really true. A lot of times they just have no idea," Salas said.

"Boil Alert" looks at the clean water crisis in Indigenous communities across North America. (Courtesy of TIFF)
"Boil Alert" looks at the clean water crisis in Indigenous communities across North America. (Courtesy of TIFF)

After meeting Burns, co-director of Boil Alert, Salas began talking to him about identity, but they also wanted to make a documentary about water. That's when the idea came to combine the two into one documentary.

"We found Layla, who had been struggling to fill this hole in her soul," Salas explained. "She was taken off the [reservation] at a young age, but she always had the memories of her grandfather teaching her about water, and that water was going to be the most important thing.

"The void was for her to come home. She came on to the reservation, it just dawned on her she needed to get into this thing about the water. So she made her own little, tiny doc ... and we saw it. We thought, 'OK, she's really into this' and ... we talked to her about the identity thing, and she was super into it."

While Staats was initially thinking to showcase how strong and powerful Indigenous women can be, Salas wanted to ensure that she approached this project being very "real," so others can identify with her.

"That was terrifying for her, ... to go on film and talk about all her faults and all the things she did wrong," Salas said. "But that was the only way this film was going to work and she was brave enough to do it — and she trusted us.

"You're going to see the injustice with the water, you're going to feel it without us having to sit down with David Suzuki and tell you how it happened, or why. ... You're going to figure that out by the human interaction between these people telling you their stories, and Layla learned about her own story."

Stevie Salas speaking with a Yurok Tribal Leader. (James Burns)
Stevie Salas speaking with a Yurok Tribal Leader. (James Burns)

'What are you going to do about this?'

Among all the different places viewers travel to throughout the film, one story from Grassy Narrows is particularly harrowing. As it's stated in the film, 90 per cent of the population is experiencing symptoms of mercury poisoning, which is affecting three generations of people.

"I think some of the more egregious things that have happened to Indigenous people is the chronic indifference that Canadians and health professionals have had with our health," family physician Dr. Ojistah Horn, with the Akwesasne Medical Clinic, said in the documentary.

It's in Grassy Narrows that Staats speaks to Nora Sneaky, who openly talks about how she's come to an understanding that this indifference towards the health and safety of Indigenous people means that her life will be cut short.

It's a heartbreaking interaction, and Salas revealed to Yahoo Canada that she died shortly before the film's TIFF premiere.

"It's crushing to us," Salas said. "What's really crushing about this, if you look at her story at the end, ... she says, 'But this place is so beautiful and it's my home and I love it.'

"The hope is that people will see this and come out of the theatre saying, 'This is unacceptable.' You can hammer people all day and say, 'You guys are screwing these people over and your government sucks ... and you stole our land.' ... But that's not what we're here for. We're not here for that. We're here to present you with some story and let you walk out of there and say, 'What are you going to do about this?'"