‘The Bay’ Director Barry Levinson on Why Movies Matter

Takepart.comOctober 29, 2012

It wasn’t until Barry Levinson was approached to do a documentary on the pollution of the Chesapeake Bay that he first learned of the existence of Poisoned Waters, a previous documentary produced on the subject by the PBS series Frontline.

Once Levinson saw Poisoned Waters, the Baltimore native wondered why it had taken him so long to find out about the mountains of chicken excrement being dumped into a place he knew intimately.

“The thing that bothers me,” Levinson tells TakePart, “is when Frontline did that, you would’ve thought there would be people up in arms. [People should’ve said] ‘We’ve got to fix this. We really have to make an effort to turn this around.’ And that didn’t come about. Maybe we’re in a time of such clutter that facts just get lost and we just don’t pay attention.”

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Poisoned Waters both discouraged though Levinson from making another documentary on the same subject, and inspired him to create a movie that will make people sit up in their seats. The Rain Man director’s latest film, The Bay, details the spread of flesh-eating bacteria that appears to be a product as much of contaminants in the water as it is of government and corporate collusion.

Seeing that the writer/director—the creative force behind such culturally groundshaking films as political satire Wag the Dog and the Kevorkian biopic You Don’t Know Jack—only became aware of the Chesapeake Bay chicken-excrement disaster after viewing a Frontline documentary while researching a potential job, does he still think any movie can cut through the clutter?

“On occasion they can,” Levinson says. “It’s getting harder, but what happens is the 24-hour news cycle we thought would actually inform us more, it actually informs us less. Because they keep repeating the same things over and over again, we just tune out in a certain way. All you can do is, you hope that we sometimes act to make change.”

With The Bay, Levinson is doing his part. The film has the possibility of frightening people into springing into action for the collective good, but: “I can only do it as a movie, and it’s got information, but I can’t make it a polemic. Afterward, if you want to talk about it, great. If you want to do something about it, even better.”

That means it’s up to audiences to not only come to their own conclusions regarding the questions raised in films like The Bay, but to begin asking their own. 

“You have to ask why we don’t do better,” says Levinson. “It’s not like we don’t understand it’s wrong in terms of, say, pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. We know exactly what’s wrong. We know what contributes to it. We understand business, we understand the economic realities of it all, but we can do better. You’re playing around with our environment, of which we have no say in the matter basically, and that is because we don’t ask for enough say. We have to demand better.”

What improvements in your local environment are you ready to stand up and demand? Leave the calls to action in COMMENTS.

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Based in Los Angeles, California, Stephen Saito writes about the movies. His work has appeared in Premiere, the L.A. Times and IFC.com. He recently founded the indie film site The Moveable Fest. Email Stephen | @mfrushmore