It has been six months since Brave Blue World was released on Netflix. The response from the water sector and beyond, has been extraordinary. There has also been great interest in how the documentary was created.

In these highlights from a conversation with Xylem’s Amanda Holloway, BlueTech Research CEO and Brave Blue World executive producer Paul O’Callaghan discusses the story behind the documentary and the change it hopes to inspire.

The full interview can be heard on Xylem’s #SolvingWater podcast

Amanda Holloway: Brave Blue World provides an honest and optimistic view into the technologies in place today that could solve the global water crisis, with the right support from companies, governments, and non-profit organizations. It features actors and philanthropists Matt Damon and Jaden Smith and is narrated by Liam Neeson. There’s a lot to cover but I’ll start with the basics – can you tell us a bit more about BlueTech Research?

Paul O’Callaghan: We provide water technology market intelligence. If we’ve got a superpower, it’s that we make things simple because there’s an incredible amount of information out there about the water sector and technologies. Our role is to help people make better decisions, to make more efficient use of capital and to provide insights and intelligence on what are the latest emerging technologies and trends.

It’s a fabulous place to be – interacting with the leading water companies, investors, universities globally from Australia to Japan, Europe to North America. It puts us in a vantage point where we can see a lot of different parts of the water sector and perhaps that was why we could also see the opportunities to tell alternative stories about water in the documentary.

Water must have always been a passion for you, to establish BlueTech Research and then Brave Blue World?

When I left university as a young graduate, I traveled to Malaysia and volunteered with World Wildlife Fund. I worked on highland rainforest projects and became aware of the interrelationship between water and forests. I went back and I studied for a master’s degree in water and was fortunate to work alongside Anita Roddick, who was a pioneer of The Body Shop back in the late 1990s. I’ve never looked back. If you’re a curious person, there’s no end of things to explore in water.

Can you tell us how Brave Blue World came to be?

I could see that with all the fantastic work we were doing in the sector, perhaps we needed to really engage with people. That’s what I could see when I traveled to places like Singapore, where the awareness is so high about water. When I get into a taxi in Singapore, the driver will start talking to me about water when they know why I’m there and they’re so excited to tell me about the Four Taps in Singapore and the new water plant. It’s incredible to get that level of awareness.

So, the idea was to communicate outside of our industry. The power of storytelling is a great way to do that because as human beings, that’s how we best absorb information. It’s empathising with another human being, connecting with them. That’s powerful because it brings us all together as a society and allows us to do fantastic things when we’re channeled.

The idea would have remained an idea were it not for a number of brave partners who took a leap of faith, which was incredible because it was a new journey for everybody.

How did Xylem and BlueTech become partners in making this film?

Xylem was possibly one of the first clients BlueTech ever had, certainly one of the first three, so we’ve had a long-standing partnership. I think there was a connection between ourselves and Xylem and indeed all the partners. Your tagline is let’s solve water and that was fundamentally the message of the film. We can do this. There is an alternative story.

Was it a real challenge to get all the folks in the documentary together?

There was a tremendous amount of goodwill. There are only a few things in my life that I’ve embarked on where I felt the universe was willing the project into existence and that every door seemed to be an open door.

Watching the film, a common thread were the solutions that were presented that address specific problems that are faced locally. What does this say about our collective approach to solving the water crisis?

There is no silver bullet for water. There is no one technology that’s going to arrive that will suddenly help us to solve the crisis. It’s so situationally specific because sometimes you’re dealing with drought, sometimes you’re dealing with flooding, other times it’s a quality issue. The common thing was that whether we were in Chennai in India, where they were facing day zero, or Mexico City, which was sinking under its own weight, the common denominator was that people were open to doing things differently. Whether that was building a sanitation economy or going towards a zero water discharge factory, everybody was willing to push the envelope. We looked upon those stories as lighthouses. George Bernard Shaw said that the lighthouse was one of the most altruistic creations man has ever made. It’s there for one reason, to serve and guide us to safety. So, together those stories paint a picture. It’s a futuristic world but it’s actually not that futuristic. Everything we saw was happening already.

What kinds of things are happening to make the technologies in the film more accessible?

We have the solutions, it’s just a matter of bringing them to bear on the problem and doing it faster and accelerating that. The key part is people – we have the technologies. When we visited Orange County in California, they told us that when they started the project of water reuse, they saw it as a communications project. They had to win the hearts and the minds of the local population. They had to be very open and honest with people and hope they would build trust. It is also about getting people to want better. When people experience the effects of climate change, be it through forest fires or droughts, they begin to become really open to wanting to go towards renewable energy.

These types of solutions make people say, “Wow, that is really cool, I didn’t know we could do that”. Creating that energy means you’re halfway there. Then the policy makers are going to listen and support. It is the policy, the finance, the technology and the people.

What is the biggest barrier to bringing these technologies forward?

In one sense, we’re victims of our own success in this industry. We provided safe drinking water at the turn of the last century in the developed world. In many parts of the world, we did such a good job of solving the problem that it disappeared from public view. It’s out of sight, out of mind. A key thing is to make them know that there is a problem. It is closer than you think. It’s quite likely that it is going to get worse because of climate change, population increase, aging infrastructure. The good news is that you can solve it. Perhaps it is time we considered having a reuse system in our city? Why can’t we go to carbon neutrality when we treat our wastewater? I think the biggest obstacle is what’s between our two ears.

What was your process to find these people and technologies that were featured in the movie?

It was a journey that was somewhat organic and I was very fortunate the film producers and directors were willing to be flexible. When we would get to one location, we might learn something that would lead us to another. When we went to Spain to an advanced membrane research center, they told us about this amazing project in India, where textile mills had gone to complete zero liquid discharge. Within two weeks, we’re on a plane to India. It was fabulous from that perspective.

How long did it take to make the film?

We had about 30 to 35 days of filming, over a period of eight to nine months. We did some initial pilot shoots in Singapore in September 2018 but we really began in earnest in Davos in January. We got a call from [Matt Damon’s organisation], asking if we could be in Davos and suddenly, we’re all making our way through the snowy landscapes of Switzerland. Then we were on the road every few weeks until August.

They started cutting and editing from July and we worked up until the launch in December where we added in the narration from Liam Neeson.

How did Liam Neeson come to be the narrator of the film?

There was lot of serendipity in making the film and a lot of luck. We reached out to a contact of Liam Neeson’s and he felt it was an important project. He was very gracious and had all sorts of stories to tell us. My whole office was crowded around the microphone to hear Liam Neeson’s voice.

We had to get him back because Netflix wanted to make a few tweaks to the film. It was during Covid-19 and everything was locked down, so the crew headed to upstate New York where he lives, with the equipment. He was super excited because he’d seen the final cut of the film. He said every school child, every college kid should see it.

Can you tell us about pitching the film to Netflix?

It was a real insight into a whole other world of Hollywood and production. Netflix are approached every day with films and content. We had three nos before we got the yes.
They eventually asked if we could change one or two things to have stronger calls to action at the end, which was a really good suggestion. Then it became an incredible process because the Netflix machine kicks into gear. Now you’ve got a graphics design agency, and all of this value-add support that Netflix bring to the table. The fact that they can subtitle it in 29 languages amplifies global reach.
Then it finally hit me, that it’s actually there and I’m getting messages from my mother-in-law and my nephew who’s eight who loved it.

It is the overwhelming tide of grassroots support that is going to ensure the success of the film. It really is now about everybody telling one other person and then perhaps it could be shown in a school or in a university. That builds momentum, it catalyses conversation and debate.

Can you tell us about the Brave Blue World Foundation?

It is a not-for-profit, registered in Canada, and was the vehicle we established to enable the film to come into existence. Its mission is to produce educational content around the theme of water. Its work will continue.

What’s next for Brave Blue World and BlueTech?

For BlueTech, the work never stops because there’s always new innovations and new technologies. I think the next 10 years is going to be a very interesting decade because of commitments corporations are making towards net zero, the SDG6 goals, the urgency of response to climate change. I don’t think we’re going to run out of things to look at in BlueTech and we look forward to doing that.
For the film, I think there is probably a part two. We’d love to hear from anyone that has stories or inspirational ideas.

The key thing I took away from the experience is that human beings derive happiness from working together towards a common shared goal. It motivates us, it inspires us to keep doing what we’re doing. That’s our key message – we’re in this together and we can be part of the solution.