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#HotDocs21 Review: Hell or Clean Water

April 28, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The 2021 Hot Docs Festival is running virtually from April 29th to May 9th, all films are available to stream for audiences across Canada

Shawn Bath, the main subject of the engaging and appropriately titled documentary Hell or Clean Water, is a commercial diver in Newfoundland who has made it is his mission to remove the old tires and other trash that have been thrown into the ocean, mostly by dragging it out himself.

Bath admits to being the type of guy who used to toss litter out his truck window, before his future wife helped him to see the light. He has now dedicated himself to cleaning up the ocean floor, almost to the point of obsession, having pulled thousands of pounds of garbage out already. He’s doing this at great personal and financial cost to himself, (he shows us his bank account at one point in the film and he only has nine dollars left), with his wife feeling the effects of struggling to pay the bills.

Directed by musician/filmmaker Cody Westman, Hell or Clean Water follows Bath as he tries to raise money for his fledgling business, Clean Harbours Initiative, through crowdfunding and applying for government grants. He desperately needs money to invest in new equipment and grow his operation, which he is expanding to focus on cleaning up “ghost gear” like old fishing nets that have been tossed into the water by commercial fishermen, and are incredibly harmful to whales and other animals who get caught in them.

The film also gets into the more complex politics around what Bath is doing and the business he is trying to build. Bath forms a partnership with Sheryl Fink of IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare), which puts him at odds with other members of his Atlantic community, who view IFAW’s opposition to the seal hunt as antithetical to their traditions and way of life. Even within the environmental movement not everyone agrees with what Bath is doing, with a few arguing that some of this trash has been there for so long that removing it now is disturbing things more, though many do support his initiative.

Bath, who makes for an engaging working class subject throughout, very much believes that one person can make a difference, and this is a big theme of the film. It’s an inspiring and surprisingly compelling look at one man’s drive to make change in the world by making it a little cleaner, one tire ripped from the harbour at a time.

Hell or Clean Water will be available from April 29th at 10:00 AM until May 9th. It includes a Q&A. Tickets and more information can be found right here.

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