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Photographer’s Film to Bring Drought into Focus

THE TRIBUNE: San Luis Obispo photographer Brittany Anzel App is raising money to turn a photographic documentary project on California’s water crisis into a film, “Where There Once Was Water: A California Story.” App hopes the film will inspire people to take action.

Written by Sarah Linn, The Tribune Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

The idea occurred to San Luis Obispo photographer Brittany Anzel App last year as she watched the Rough Fire ravage Sequoia National Forest.

Why not turn “Where There Once Was Water,” her photography project documenting the effects of the California drought, into a feature film?

“You could literally see the flames burning on these mountains … It was just amazing to watch,” recalled App, who was vacationing with her family at Hume Lake at the time. “I realized that video would be a much more powerful tool in telling the story of these water issues in California.”

App is raising money to make “Where There Once Was Water: A California Story,” a feature-length documentary that she said will offer a “solution-focused discussion about California’s current water crisis.”

She launched a Kickstarter fundraising campaign Feb. 10 to help pay for travel, post-production and other expenses; it ends just before midnight Sunday.

“We’re at a point where people finally realize how bad the situation really is. My hope is that we can find a solution before it gets worse,” said App, who emphasized that she’s taking a different approach to documenting California’s water woes.

Rather than depress moviegoers, she wants to spark conversations, showcase fresh perspectives and inspire people to take action.

“The story has to be about solutions,” she said, such as changing our diets so the foods we eat are less water-intensive, ending state and federal water subsidies to megafarms and preventing private companies from bottling and selling water from public waterways. She is interviewing experts in agriculture, conservation and government water policies, among other fields.

According to App, the film is the culmination of years of campaigning for ready access to clean, safe running water.

“Water has always been my focus,” said App, who attended Morro Bay High School and Cuesta College before launching her photography business in 2004. (She is the daughter of Jim App, who recently retired as the longtime city manager of Paso Robles.)

In 2010, App and Oregon filmmaker Garrett Russell traveled by bicycle from San Diego to St. Augustine, Fla., to raise awareness and money for international nonprofit organization WaterAid.

In August 2014, App launched her Five Gallon Challenge, which invites participants to live on just five gallons of water a day, plus three toilet flushes.

A trip to drought-devastated Lake San Antonio in January 2014 inspired App to start her photo project. She snapped a few panoramic shots of the parched landscape with her cellphone and posted them on Facebook under the heading “Where There Once Was Water.”

“I was like ‘Oh my god, I have to do something with this,’ ” recalled App, who’s spent much of the past two years traveling across California shooting images of dry lakebeds, drained reservoirs and cracked, crumbling earth.

“This is such a complicated issue that there is no way to tell the story just with stills alone,” she said.

Though “Where There Once Was Water: A California Story” will be App’s first feature-length movie, she’s already made a foray into filmmaking. Her short video “California, Where There Once Was Water” was selected as one of 21 finalists in the 2015 sH2Orts international film competition organized by WaterAid in partnership with WorldView — and the only one representing the United States.

“I know just enough (about filmmaking) to go and dive into it,” App said. “I’m just going to be learning the whole time.”

App has spent about $5,000 out-of-pocket on her film so far. She hopes to raise enough money so that she can dedicate a year to the project, with research and production slated to start this month.

If everything goes as planned, the film will enter the post-production phase in April 2017, reach completion that fall and hit the festival circuit the following year.

“It’s been an incredible journey so far,” said App, who’s making the movie with the help of Russell, San Luis Obispo landscape photographer Michael Mariant and San Luis Obispo musician and composer Erin Inglish, among others. “There’s so much out there to learn and to share and to talk about.”

So far, she’s visited one of California’s largest wastewater treatment facilities, toured organic farms and biodynamic wineries and interviewed experts such as “Deadbeat Dams” author Dan Beard, the former commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and conservationist Stiv Wilson, director of campaigns for The Story of Stuff Project.

A conversation with Dr. Richard Oppenlander, author of “Food Choice and Sustainability: Why Buying Local, Eating Less Meat, and Taking Baby Steps Won’t Work,” is scheduled for mid-March.

“That’s the biggest piece of the puzzle,” App said. “What we choose to eat or not eat has the biggest effect on our planet and our resources.”

She said her fundraising campaign is “an experiment to see how many people want to hear this story.”

“Is this a film that people want to support? … It looks like the answer is ‘yes,’” App said.

As of March 2, the Kickstarter campaign for “Where There Once Was Water: A California Story” had exceeded its initial goal of $25,000, with 353 backers pledging more than $25,700.

App hopes supporters will continue contributing to the project.

“The more money I raise, the better film I can make, the larger audience it can find,” she explained.

This article originally appeared in the Tribune. You can read more of the paper’s coverage on the California drought here.

Top image: An aerial shot of Lake San Antonio showcases the effects of the California drought. The photo is part of San Luis Obispo photographer Brittany Anzel App’s “Where There Once Was Water” project. (Brittany Anzel App)

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