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TV Reviews of 'Frontline: Poisoned Waters' and 'Watermen'
And the film also provides several moments of crackling journalism. Smith takes on the Eastern Shore's chicken industry and prods its representatives into the kind of verbal evasions that would twinkle a tobacco industry scientist's eye.
He also wrings a startling admission from a scientist who discovered that male fish in the Potomac River are growing eggs. Smith asks: Would she drink Washington tap water, which comes from the same river?
"Probably not," she says.
But many viewers may not make it that far. In trying to connect the dots of this complex problem, the film climbs deeper into the weeds than a molting blue crab. We get the unabridged history of Tysons Corner's sprawl, and deep-dive into the controversy over industrial pollution in Seattle's Duwamish River. By the end of the second hour, an environmentalist gives the film its punch line: "This is sick. It doesn't look sick, but it is sick." But, by that point, many of Smith's viewers may already be looking at "Law & Order."
This film was in production for two years. But the other Chesapeake special, the one-hour "Watermen" -- which premieres Thursday on Maryland Public Television -- has a far longer back story.
In the mid-1960s, a pair of young filmmakers began hanging out in watermen's communities on the bay's Eastern Shore. They focused on Art Daniels Jr., the captain of an oyster-fishing sailboat called a skipjack. Holly Fisher, one of the filmmakers, was enthralled by his independence and his connection to his boat and the water: "a kind of quintessential, spiritual American character . . . he was living out Manifest Destiny."
What they produced was what Fisher calls "a very pure form" of film. Pure, as in: There is no narration, almost no identification of people or places, almost nothing to tell the viewer what the heck they're watching.
That made the film a bit too pure, even for the 1960s: It was screened a few times, and then it spent decades on the shelf in Fisher's TriBeCa loft.
Now unearthed, "Watermen" has beautiful shots of Chesapeake marshes shimmering at dawn, of men singing as they sort oysters, of skipjacks racing past the Bay Bridge. And it even succeeds, by accident, as a work of history. A long swath of Chesapeake race relations is encapsulated in a single scene, where a skipjack's white captain and his black deckhands -- men who lived separate lives off the water -- sing "I'll Fly Away" over a meal in the boat's tiny cabin.
For those who know the bay's history, the scenes of oyster fishing, churchgoing and hanging out in tackle shops can be riveting: The film was shot as a pair of diseases had begun to devastate the bay's oyster population. Now, given the diseases, pollution and overfishing, the Chesapeake oyster beds have been almost wiped out. Just a handful of skipjacks are even working now, and watermen's grandchildren have had to seek work at an Eastern Shore prison.
In many ways, what happened after the cameras stopped rolling was worse than what happened a few years later on the Cuyahoga.
You can see a fire, of course. And you can put it out.
Frontline: Poisoned Waters (two hours) airs tonight at 9 on Channels 22 and 26.
Watermen (one hour) airs Thursday at 9:30 on Channel 22.