Next Level: Water Flows Together

Photo of Colleen Cooley from Water Flows Together.
All photos courtesy of Spruce Tone Films and Taylor Graham.

This series of posts highlights some of our Next Level Grant recipients. We asked Taylor Graham to provide insight into the work on his latest project, ‘Water Flows Together’. You can watch the trailer here.

The Next Level Grant Program provides funding for local directors and producers that are currently working on a project in the state of Utah. The Utah Film Commission seeks to cultivate original storytelling by providing the extra push for filmmakers to get their film to the “next level”. This program funds projects of all stages from development to production and distribution. More information on our next round of funding will be available soon. Read more about the Next Level Grant Program here.

 

Taylor Graham

Taylor Graham is a multimedia storyteller and National Geographic Explorer based in Salt Lake City, UT. He has produced award-winning documentary films about the impacts of melting glaciers in the Indian Himalaya, the role of women in collecting water in Rajasthan’s urban slums, and the impacts of climate change and water scarcity in the American Southwest. Graham aims to use storytelling to explore the impacts of climate change on water resources and advocate for the protection of the world’s last free-flowing rivers.

Water Flows Together is an eleven-minute documentary film that focuses on Colleen Cooley, a Diné (Navajo) river guide on southern Utah’s San Juan River who works to share native perspectives and issues through her work. The film features Colleen’s personal journey in order to highlight native views on issues of water resource management, which are often missing from larger discussions of river and natural resource conservation.

What led you to document this story?

Growing up, I was fortunate to spend time rafting and kayaking on the San Juan River. I owe a great deal to the life experiences I shared with my family on the river. At the same time, I remember noticing from a young age that, although the river passed entirely through the present boundary of the Navajo Nation and the traditional lands of a number of other native peoples, those I saw on the river were almost entirely non-native. I was glad to learn of Colleen’s work on the river and on behalf of the Diné community, and was gratified that she was willing to share her story through the film.

How did you prepare for this film?

One of the challenges we faced in preparing for this film was deciding how we would structure the narrative. My two co-directors and I spent a lot of time discussing how to lay out the story we wanted to tell and focus on the issues we wanted to address. Ultimately, we took our cues from Colleen and allowed our conversations with her to guide the final film.

What was your day-to-day experience while filming?

We shot the majority of Water Flows Together over the course of a week in November on a rafting trip down the San Juan River. Filming during this time of year meant we had some cold mornings filming, but the low late-autumn sun also provided beautiful lighting and meant there were few other boaters on the river. In addition to filming, we still had to cook meals, set up camp, and make our way down the river, so our whole team shared roles during the trip.

What did you take away from this experience?

I took away even greater respect for the lands of the Southwest and for people who have stewarded those lands for millennia. I also came away with an appreciation for the magnitude of challenges currently affecting the Navajo Nation, and with the belief that now is a critical juncture in time that will determine much about the Nation’s future. With the closure of the Navajo Generating Station, which represents the significant shift away from the impact of extractive industry on the Navajo Nation, I am inspired by Diné leaders, change-makers, and business owners who are taking the lead in developing new sustainable economic opportunities on the Navajo Nation.

What do you hope your audience takes away after seeing this film?

I hope audiences will take to heart the message Colleen offers at the end of the film—that the public lands we enjoy in the Southwest are indigenous lands and have been for generations. I think acknowledging and respecting that fact is an important first step toward learning more about the challenges many native communities face and changing the way we as a society view the management of public lands.

Is this career path something you always wanted to pursue, and how did you initially get into the industry?

I began making short “films” with a family camera when I was ten years old, but it wasn’t until I traveled to India for a study abroad program in college that I discovered my real passion for documentary filmmaking. For the program’s final project, I traveled to the remote state of Sikkim to shoot my first film about an indigenous-led fight to save a Himalayan river from a proposed hydroelectric dam project. The experience was one of the most challenging and rewarding of my life. I knew afterward that I had found something I could use for the rest of my life to create change and highlight important issues around the world and in my own backyard.

How did the Next Level Grant help you in the process of creating this film?

The Next Level grant was crucial in supporting the film in its early stages. Not only did the funding provide us with the resources we needed to scout locations and handle permitting, but the backing of the Utah Film Commission also enabled us to approach other potential partners and furthered the reach of our film immensely.

Do you have upcoming projects that you’re working on?

I recently released a series of short documentary films about water issues in India, which premiered at the DC Environmental Film Festival.

What advice would you give to a local who is trying to get into the industry?

Don’t be hesitant to reach out to fellow filmmakers and industry professionals, and be sure to use the Utah Film Commission network to do so. I have found the industry in Utah be extremely supportive and helpful.


 

Water Flows Together, produced by Spruce Tone Films will be released on Monday, June 29th courtesy of American Rivers.
Watch the film here when it goes live on Monday.

Also, join #JustAddWater guides Faith Briggs and Adam Edwards for a virtual screening of Water Flows Together on Thursday, July 2nd at 5pm PST.
The film will be followed by a discussion with the subject of the film, Colleen Cooley and the film’s director, Taylor Graham.
The screening & discussion is free, but you must sign up for #JustAddWater updates via this
link and an email invite will be sent before the event.
More details available 
here.

 


This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity. 

Allie Russell is the Marketing Coordinator for the Utah Film Commission. For any press and media inquiries, contact the Utah Film Commission at film@utah.gov.

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