University's handling of her film leaves her wondering

Larkin McPhee
Larkin McPhee, of Minneapolis, is a writer, producer and director of documentary films.
Larkin McPhee

As the producer, director and writer of "Troubled Waters: A Mississippi River Story," I was surprised and disappointed to learn that University of Minnesota officials had decided to cancel the PBS broadcast and premiere of the documentary at the last minute.

Now I've learned that the university has changed its mind and decided to show the premiere of the film after all. Although this latest turn of events is a relief, the university's process leaves many questions unanswered.

The university's initial explanation for canceling the premiere -- that the film was somehow scientifically inaccurate -- was baffling. Standards of accuracy, balance and fairness were applied to "Troubled Waters," consistent with my 26 years of experience working at places such as "Smithsonian World," National Geographic Television and the NOVA science series.

"Troubled Waters" underwent a rigorous scientific review process by one of the university's own world-renowned experts and eight other university scientists, as well as local and national experts. In fact, my executive producer, in fulfilling her obligations to the university, made sure that we went the extra mile by seeking broad input from university faculty and scientists.

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I understand that the university is interested in presenting a film that is accurate and balanced, a goal we all share. But its sudden about-face, and its later claim that the film "vilifies commercial agriculture," were disturbing. The film features several commercial farmers who are taking significant steps -- through precision agriculture, conservation methods, buffer strips and the preservation of wetlands -- to reduce erosion and nutrient runoff into the Mississippi's watershed. It also includes, among other stories, accounts of organic and grass-fed beef farmers who offer alternative approaches to improving water quality.

The main ideas and issues presented in this film are not new, as the press has pointed out. What is perhaps unique is that this one-hour documentary reveals how various actions on the land interact with the Mississippi River watershed, federal energy and farm policies and the "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico, resulting in a series of "unintended consequences."

The unintended consequences that are at the heart of this film are deeply interconnected issues and represent critical concepts for the public and private sector to grasp in order to make informed decisions going forward. In fact, the commercial, local and organic farmers in this film, who live so close to the land, are already making informed decisions and offering dramatically positive solutions that the public deserves to know about.

When I give talks about my work, I like to say that I never have an agenda when working on a film. Rather, I follow the facts and stories where they take me. I also always seek out hopeful stories because, in my mind, the goal of a documentary is to educate, inform and inspire people. Why make a film if it does not offer hope and encourage positive solutions?

Hundreds of hours of research went into this project, layers of scientific input and approval were obtained at every stage of the film's production, and countless organizations and individuals contributed their time, talent and financial resources to make the film a reality. It is perplexing that the university tried to suppress a film that reflects the hard work of scientists, farmers, concerned citizens and the university's own experts. The public will benefit from this fair and balanced film, which incorporates the contributions of so many.

Larkin McPhee, Minneapolis, is a writer, producer and director of documentary films.