Credit: Courtesy of TIFF
by Luke Gorham Featured Film

Boil Alert — Stevie Salas & James Burns [TIFF ’23 Review]

September 20, 2023

Amidst the ongoing renaissance of Indigenous art, there is one existential crisis that is rarely addressed: First Nations’ access to clean, drinkable water. It’s not hard to conclude that the lack of coverage has something to do with the surrounding discourse being too unsensationalist to easily facilitate that all-absolving evil of liberal white guilt, but whatever the case, few modern-day cruelties facing Native populations are more insidious than Western governments’ ambivalence and active antagonism with this cause. Co-directed by Stevie Salas and James Burns, Boil Alert takes on this subject matter by way of activist Layla Staats, following her as she travels to various Indigenous communities across North America, tracing the history of disregard, the environmental impact of mitigating efforts, and the human faces and struggles policy-makers prefer to ignore.

Immediately, thankfully evident is that the trio of Salas, James, and Staats have no intention of delivering your typical talking heads-aided essay film. Boil Alert opens with a series of shots gliding over various still waters; puffy pink clouds reflect on glassy surfaces, slow-moving fauna send interrupting ripples across placid lakes, purple and sienna twilights punctuate sometimes visible horizon lines. But these commencing images aren’t mere bookending patina or empty landscape photography; instead, they introduce an essential foundation of the film, which holds that the natural world is an invitation to communion rather than a commodity to dominate. Fittingly, then, over these quickly shuffled images, Staats speaks: “My papa would say, one day water would be gold. Protect the water. Whoever has the water at the end, they’re going to be the ones surviving.” Water has been used as easy metaphor for millennia of art, but in Boil Alert, it functions better as synecdoche, a reflection of colonization’s persistence into the present and the political/corporate greed that ever endeavors for continued displacement of Native populations, from power, from sovereignty, and from history. After all, water is the most essential nutrient for the corporeal body, so why wouldn’t the empire seek to deny this to the metaphorical Indigenous body?

In addition to its discursive weight and legibility, Boil Alert benefits from its travelogue-adjacent construction. Staats visits not simply with experts practiced in their rhetoric, but with real individuals who suffer the burden of Western capitalist transgression. Their stories, spoken with the matter-of-factness of the exhausted, stir more empathy and rancor in viewers than can be manufactured with polish and gloss. So too do the images of otherwise unassuming swaths of Navajo land we come to learn are infected by uranium poisoning, or the footage of peaceful activists being arrested for protesting the devastation of Native land by the private sector. There’s a clear perspective in these stretches, of advocate-minded observation and a stirring to effect change, reflective of Staats’ guiding presence but also of an autonomous visual character.

It’s unfortunate, then, that so much of Boil Alert’s bracing power is mitigated by an essential dissonance. Staats isn’t only our Charon to the particular Hell reflected in the film, but is also a dual subject in her own right, her activist work and personal history constituting a parallel narrative thread. In contrast to the rest of the film’s more experiential documentation, its other half is quite conspicuously designed, with many of Staats’ moments in front of the camera left to feel unappealingly orchestrated. That’s not by accident, as press notes refer to sections of “dramatic recreation” concerning Staats’ experience, but there’s a lack of clarity to its vision; presentation and performance, art and activism, all jostling in an uneasy dance. It’s not all ineffective: there are interludial sequences, sometimes fantastical, sometimes historical, sometimes terpsichorean, that seem of a piece with the words of Staats’ father, connecting the spiritual to the corporeal. But then there are other scenes — including an early conversation Staats has with her brother, several voiceover monologues she delivers throughout, and an egregious, artfully composed shot of her wearily collapsing onto a bed — that are at aesthetic and tonal odds with the film’s other, more appealing half. These instances feel like manufactured material retroactively conceived to function as connective tissue for the documentary’s narrative and thematic waypoints, and the whiplash is felt. It’s hard to come down too hard on a work this rooted in passion, reflective of vital discourse, and willing to follow the tendrils of our present moral rot, but Boil Alert’s frustrating discordance results in a film that too frequently sacrifices its inherent power at the altar of ostentation.

Published as part of TIFF 2023 — Dispatch 5.