There was a time when Washingtonians who like their water from the tap and those who prefer it in bottles got along just fine. That time was called "last week."
Last night at American University's Wechsler Theater, the university's Center for Environmental Filmmaking hosted a screening of Tapped, a film about the environmental costs of bottled water. On Monday, the International Bottled Water Association, which is not thrilled with Tapped, e-mailed the university.
Tom Lauria, the IBWA's vice president for communications, wrote that the trade group "will be there to set the record straight, both in terms of the pre-production conduct of 'Tapped' producers and the faulty information they provide to viewers." Lauria demanded a seat on the panel discussing the film cautioned that "We have many relevant comments, corrections and observations of concern to film students, and it may prove to be smoother program if AU accommodates authoritative voices who find flaws in this very problematic and false depiction of bottled water companies, as opposed to having serious issues shouted from the aisles."
Chris Palmer, the director of AU's Center for Environmental Filmmaking, invited Lauria to join the discussion, with the caveat that he wouldn't be allowed to dominate it. He read Lauria's e-mail to the room before the panelists spoke.
In an interview yesterday before the panel Lauria said he has a "little bit of a personal ax to grind" with the filmmakers; he arranged an interview for them with IBWA's president, Joseph Doss, whom he said the filmmakers "did pretty much of a hatchet job" on. In a way, he said, he was happy the showing was at American: "The film was not picked up by Sundance," he said. "It is reduced to college road shows."
"Was it rejected by Sundance?" said Stephanie Soechtig, the film's director, yesterday. "Yes. As were 3,000 other films. It was, however, selected by the International Documentary Association to be considered for an Academy Award. We didn't get nominated, but it's the thought that counts."
The IBWA "posts comments to almost every article written about us," Soechtig said. "Yet they can never specifically discredit any of our facts."
The trade group, she said, is "desperate to contain this message and discredit this message. Much like when the tobacco industry was going down and Tom Lauria swooped in to do the same thing with them."
Lauria used to be a spokesperson for the Tobacco Institute, a trade group that dissolved in 1998. Soechtig was in Los Angeles yesterday preparing for a 30-day tour to promote Tapped's March 22 DVD release, but this fact still came up last night.
“I wonder, when you worked for the Tobacco Institute, if you started your presentation with, ‘I love cigarettes,’” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, a group that lobbies students, restaurateurs, and legislators to use tap water.
It was a hard left jab on a night that was quite entertaining if you always thought of drinking water as a rather gentle subject. “It takes a vivid imagination to believe this film,” Lauria told the room. “No one's against tap water. You can’t shower in bottled water." Critics of his industry, Lauria said, effectively want to take away people's right to drink water.
Hauter showed off a reusable bottle filled with tap water and threw a couple more elbows at Lauria's résumé.
“Would you knock that off?” Lauria said. “How dare you…judge” people for where they choose to get their water, he blustered.
"How dare YOU?" an audience member blustered back.
Christopher O'Brien, the university's director of sustainability, said his favorite beverage was actually beer.