Mississippi River documentary to be shown after all

ST. PAUL — After spending a week defending its decision to cancel the premiere of a documentary about the Mississippi River and related pollution issues, the University of Minnesota reversed course Sept. 23 and decided to let the documentary proceed as previously scheduled.

Several environmental and farm groups protested the cancellation and wrote a letter to the U of M saying that the film was canceled because of pressure from corporate agriculture interests and questioned the institution's objectivity.

"The University of Minnesota owes the people of Minnesota straightforward answers on why public relations concerns were allowed to trump science in the public interest when this film was yanked," said Mark Schultz, associate director of the Land Stewardship Project, one of the groups who signed the letter. "This decision, and the lack of transparency surrounding it, causes us to question the university's commitment to truth-telling and to academic freedom — two pillars of a public university."

"Troubled Waters: A Mississippi River Story," is a 55-minute documentary that explores how what happens on the land in Minnesota impacts the Mississippi River watershed

and the Gulf of Mexico dead zone.


Dean Al Levine of the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences was quoted by Minnesota Public Radio News as saying the film,"Troubled Waters: A Mississippi River Story" "vilifies agriculture." He said the film wasn’t inaccurate, but was unbalanced.

In a statement, Larkin McPhee, producer, director and writer of "Troubled Waters" said "it is perplexing that the university tried to suppress a film that reflects the hard work of scientists, farmers, concerned citizens and the university’s own experts."

"I understand that the university is interested in presenting a film that is accurate and balanced, a goal we all share," McPhee wrote. "But its sudden about-face, and its later claim that the film ‘vilifies commercial agriculture’ were disturbing. The film features several commercial farmers who are taking significant steps — through precision agriculture, conservation methods, buffer strips and the preservation of wetlands — to reduce erosion and nutrient runoff into the Mississippi’s watershed."

Jack Hedin said he saw McPhee "as a darn impartial observer." As an example, McPhee interviewed Hedin, who raises vegetables, and one of his conventional agriculture friends for 90 minutes side-by-side. That didn’t seem like the actions of someone out to tell a one-sided story, said Hedin of Featherstone Farms near Rushford. McPhee spent two days filming at Hedin’s farm.

Professor Susan Weller, director of the Bell Museum of Natural History, said she learned the university had concerns about the science in the film while traveling to Europe. The trip was supposed to be a mix of business and pleasure, but instead Weller spent most of the trip corresponding via e-mail with her staff and university officials.

When she returned to work on Sept. 16, she issued the statement canceling the Bell Museum premiere because she didn’t have the evidence from staff to address the concerns raised. The University of Minnesota canceled the Oct. 5 premiere on Twin Cities Public Television on Sept. 7.

The weekend of Sept. 18-19, Weller's staff put together all the needed documents. There is a two-page list of people from the university and from outside the university who were involved throughout

the entire process, Weller said.


At least three U of M scientists saw the film from start to finish and provided comments on the rough cut, she said. Anyone quoted in the documentary has seen their piece of the film and has approved that part.

The film was paid for through a LCCMR allocation of $349,000 plus contributions from the McKnight Foundation and the Mississippi River Fund, Weller said. The Bell Museum was responsible for the paperwork. The university contributed in-kind support.

The Oct. 3 showing at the Bell Museum will be free. There will be a 4:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. showing. Tickets can be obtained by calling (612) 624-9050.

The showing will include an open forum discussion of the issues raised by the film.

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