Nitin Khanna of Portland Discusses his Documentary "What Lies Upstream"

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A new investigative documentary “What Lies Upstream,” produced by Mr. Nitin Khanna, takes you back to January 2014, when 10,000 gallons of crude 4-Methylcyclohexanemethanol spilled into West Virginia’s Elk River.

A new investigative documentary “What Lies Upstream,” produced by Mr. Nitin Khanna, takes you back to January 2014, when 10,000 gallons of crude 4-Methylcyclohexanemethanol spilled into West Virginia’s Elk River. The incident left over 300,000 inhabitants in nine counties without potable water; things worsened when another spill occurred at the same spot a couple of months later in June of the same year. The movie unfolds like a detective story and demonstrates the failure of the entire regulatory system in West Virginia and how it is basically owned by the corporations. The movie then pulls back the lens and shows how this is happening at the federal level and how the water supply of the whole country is at risk.

This documentary’s world premiere was as the Opening Night Presentation at Slamdance Film Festival (sister festival to Sundance) on January 20, the same day as the United States Presidential Inauguration. Once they have seen this movie, viewers will be horrified to learn that President Trump’s cabinet picks promise to further loosen clean water regulations making the country unsafe for everyone, especially the most vulnerable amongst us.

Variety’s review of the movie calls it “quietly devastating documentary that’s all the more attention-grabbing for being such a scrupulously restrained and slickly polished piece of work.” They go on to say about director Cullen Hoback, “the film percolates with a nonpartisan paranoia regarding state and federal regulatory agencies while linking the contamination of drinking water in West Virginia to what Hoback perceives as a perfect storm of industry maleficence, government negligence, and bureaucratic malpractice.”

It is Nitin Khanna’s and Cullen Hoback’s second movie together. The first one was “Terms & Conditions May Apply” in 2013. Carried by Netflix, this movie was also premiered at Slamdance Film Festival.

Without Nitin these movies simply would not be made; he acted as both producer and executive producer for both films. On asking what made him work with Cullen Hoback, Nitin says, “Cullen’s vision to begin with a small notion and then digging deeper to bring something substantial is very impressive. His curiosity to stick to the facts and propensity to put a lot of time and research into the projects is simply great.”

Cullen also shared few words for Nitin Khanna’s efforts, saying “Without Nitin’s help, we would have shown an unfinished rough cut at our premiere. This would have undermined the life of the film. His invaluable input and advice was critical in getting this extremely important film made.” He further said, “Nitin’s work on the film is diverse, as he was involved throughout all phases of production from inception to completion, including coordination, supervision and controlling all other talents and crafts. It wouldn’t have been possible to make this movie without his assistance and advice through the whole process. Not to mention providing funding at all critical points in the project.”

“It’s a real life detective story, which is important for everyone to see.” Nitin says. “While water is a vital element in the film, the investigation goes beyond that, it is more about why science is being ignored by both state and federal agencies and implications for the future of science in US. With recent appointment of climate change deniers and anti-environmental cabinet members in the Trump administration it is critical that everyone see the impact on clean and safe water when the oil lobby writes the rules it lives by.”

A real inspiration to all budding producers, Nitin says, "When people ask me ‘how did it all begin, I answer, that it has never been a thing of ‘it could be one day…’ it has always been that day! I just feel fortunate to have had the team and the resources to produce this important movie just at the moment its message needs to be heard by everyone."

When asked which movie he thought was more challenging, Nitin answered, “We are moving forward all the time and to me, it seems that we have again entered an entirely new dimension of doing things." “Our team wanted to achieve the same level of momentum and richness as one could feel watching ‘Terms & Conditions May Apply’. We wanted to expose the failed regulatory framework in front of audience in a scrupulous way and I hope that we were able to achieve that", he added.

Upon asking, what was more difficult - being a producer or a co-producer? He replied, “Without any doubt, working as a producer was more demanding. I was not over with my work until the movie was released. But, I was lucky to work with a good team, from whom I learned a lot.”

All in all, ‘What Lies Upstream’ is a powerful documentary by a team that is committed to its audience, exposing the flawed thinking and policies of the government that put thousands of lives at risk every day.

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Rahul Mani