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Bullard grad Marina Zenovich makes splash with documentary on California water

Exclusive: 'Water & Power: Madera Water Bank'

Emmy-winning filmmaker Marina Zenovich has produced the documentary “Water & Power: A California Heist” to air on the National Geographic channel. She also did this 12-minute companion piece that follows Madera landowner and farmer Denis Prosperi
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Emmy-winning filmmaker Marina Zenovich has produced the documentary “Water & Power: A California Heist” to air on the National Geographic channel. She also did this 12-minute companion piece that follows Madera landowner and farmer Denis Prosperi

Bullard High graduate Marina Zenovich has been aware for years that water has been an issue in California. Some of that knowledge came from practical experience, some from working with her father, George Zenovich, as he served in the California State Assembly and the California State Senate.

But, the award-winning filmmaker never claimed to be an expert.

That was a good thing when Zenovich was approached by Jigsaw Productions to put together a documentary on California’s complicated water story. What she found is in “Water & Power: A California Heist,” a documentary that will air on the National Geographic Channel.

Zenovich was approached by friend, mentor and documentarian Alex Gibney to make the film. She was considered the right person to make the film because of her interest in politics and connection to the central San Joaquin Valley.

Some of the groundwork had been done when Zenovich started working on the film. That background included pointing her to fellow Bullard High grad Mark Arax.

“When I contacted Mark, he asked me how long I would be investigating the story. When I said it would be a year, he started laughing,” Zenovich says. “Mark was very, very helpful. What I loved about watching Mark work is the ability he has to be the everyman. He asks questions with no agenda. He has a real skill to get people to open up.”

That’s what Zenovich needed because the water issues run so deep. Through interviews with journalists, local citizens, activists, state officials, environmental attorneys, farmers, investors, scientists and developers, the documentary examines pivotal events that affect management of the state’s groundwater reserves. It also explores the issue of privatizing a natural resource.

Water is a human right.

Marina Zenovich

Work on the documentary started in January 2016 and continued into July. She traveled from Porterville to Kern County to Paso Robles to tell the story. Zenovich is convinced she was able to work so quickly because Arax brought so much background on California water wars.

What Zenovich brought to the production was the same kind of broad curiosity she has used with each film she’s made.

“The less you know, the better you are because when you are interviewing someone you are generally listening closer to what they are saying,” Zenovich says. “I never come to things with an agenda. You have to be willing to learn. That’s part of the fun and is also scary.”

Zenovich’s curiosity helped her become an Emmy winner, picking up two awards in 2009 for her documentary “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired” that aired on HBO. The statues were for outstanding directing For nonfiction programming and outstanding writing for nonfiction programming.

The time she spends on a project varies. She spent five years on the Polanski documentary, but her work for the ESPN “30 for 30” series on the Duke lacrosse case was done in a year.

She collected so much material for the water documentary, there was information that could not be included. Zenovich and Gibney produced a 12-minute companion piece that follows Madera landowner and farmer Denis Prosperi as he discusses the battle surrounding the Madera Ranch water bank.

It was discovered in 1996 that there was an aquifer underneath Madera Ranch, and, per an environmental survey run by the Bureau of Reclamation, there were major environmental issues with potentially creating the water bank. Azurix Corporation, a subsidiary of Enron, wanted to purchase and develop the California waterbank privately, but the farmers eventually won the battle.

“The story Denis told is so engaging, it needs to be told,” Zenovich says.

Whether it is the documentary that will air on the National Geographic cable channel or the 12-minute short,. Zenovich wants people to get angry about what’s happening with water: “Water is a human right.”

Rick Bentley: 559-441-6355, @RickBentley1

Water & Power: A California Heist

  • 9 p.m. Tuesday, March 14, National Geographic Channel
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