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Documentary on WV water crisis in production

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JIM WORKMAN / The State Journal. On Feb. 21, director Cullen Hoback and his documentary crew filmed two segments of The State Journal’s Decision Makers. JIM WORKMAN / The State Journal. On Feb. 21, director Cullen Hoback and his documentary crew filmed two segments of The State Journal’s Decision Makers.
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The chemical spill of Jan. 9 that caused a water crisis for approximately 300,000 West Virginia America Water customers in nine counties caught the attention of Los Angeles-based Cullen Hoback, a film director with Hyrax Films.

He, along with four crew members, has been in West Virginia filming a documentary that should be out by the end of 2014, "depending on how all of this evolves," Hoback said.

The title of the project has not been determined yet.

"Right now, it's ‘American Water,' but I don't know what it's going to end up being," Hoback said. "I was in Los Angeles, and it seemed that everything happening with the (West Virginia) water crisis was being wildly unreported, especially on the national level. 

"It's actually hard to find stories on what is happening here. That led me to ask the question ‘Why?' I wondered why so many national news organizations were ignoring what I consider and what very well may be the largest (chemical) spill affecting drinking water in recent history."

Hoback said he thought the situation seemed to be a massive state of emergency without much talk about it.

"The situation is really complicated," he said. "I like to tackle really complex things. I want to answer the question — How did this happen? It's not as simple as pointing a finger at Freedom Industries. 

"It's a complicated question that takes a documentary to answer."

The magnitude of a water crisis is not lost on Hoback.

"What's happening in and around Charleston, West Virginia, is really a symbol for all of America, and perhaps, the world," he said. "A lot hangs in the balance here. 

"The takeaway is largely going to be dependant on the outcome."

As the process is playing out in front of his film crew, Hoback says he is alarmed that some of the principals have been largely unavailable for comment.

"It still shocks me that Freedom Industries has been completely AWOL in this whole process," he said. "West Virginia American Water has been a little more present. 

"I'm still trying to get an interview with them (as of Feb. 21). When you look at the town hall (meetings) — who were the empty chairs? It was Freedom Industries and West Virginia American Water. These are the companies that people want to be held accountable — especially Freedom Industries. I think it shows a real carelessness until now, that they haven't come out and shown any empathy."

The resilience of West Virginians is legendary — and true, as Hoback has found out firsthand.

"Everyone that I've talked to here has been just so strong," he said. "The people that I've talked to understand … but they want things to be normal again. They want to know the water is safe to drink. 

"The hardest part for people is that bottled water becomes really expensive. A lot of people can't afford to go out and keep buying bottled water, and they certainly can't afford it to shower in. That's a really unfair position to put people in. 

"For me that's been the hardest part, to see the hardship that this has put on families."

The hospitality of West Virginians, also well-known, also has impacted Hoback, he said. 

"I'm coming in here and asking questions and learning from the people that I'm talking to," he said. "I'm not coming in with any pre-conceived notions. I had no idea what to expect. Every day the situation evolves, I learn something different. 

"People have been very open to me, letting me into their homes, talking about their situation. That has been very rewarding, being able to connect with people."