Catching Up With Derek Watson, Director of This is Normal

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There are many powerful moments in the short documentary, This Is Normal. However, there is one particular scene that speaks directly to a certain danger in embracing the so-called American Dream as we know it.

An Oklahoma businessman achieves success in a water pump business, and just as he begins to see that coveted and comfortable retirement lifestyle on the horizon, he decides that, having achieved the American Dream it simply is not enough. He decides to give back and goes on to do so with the nonprofit organization, Water4.

Director Derek Watson tells the story of a community in Zambia forever changed by the simple, yet brilliant, implementation of the Water4 project. Zambia is just one of many places where Water4 has tackled the global water crisis by bringing basic technology to communities without clean water, and training members of that community to drill wells for safe water. Unfortunately, as Watson was willing to admit in his interview with Paste, the water crisis is simply not as newsworthy as other epidemics, such as AIDS, nor is the narrative as compelling as that of a school shooting. In reality, unsafe drinking water takes far more lives than these other crises, and affects more communities the world over.

On March 22, World Water Day, Watson was kind enough to talk with Paste about his documentary, and his hopes for more clean water in a world where the simple things are often marginalized.

Paste: In many ways, your documentary This Is Normal is difficult to watch, and it should be. Were there any moments that were difficult for you to film?
Watson: Oh, yes. Our goal was to tell a story and to put a face on the water crisis. But it really hit home when that face became a real person with whom we spent weeks. When you hear the statistics about one in five kids dying because of unclean water, and then you look at Petronella [the main subject of the film’s Zambia scenes] and her eight kids, you start to realize that the odds are stacked against them. That was really tough.

One of the scenes that it took me a while to get through was the scene where Petronella was just washing her child. Just washing him. It’s that intimate moment where you see that this is a woman who deeply loves her child, and the water is slowly killing them. So it was difficult. But ultimately This Is Normal is a story of hope.

Paste: The concept of “normal” changes for the people in the Zambia community once the Oklahoma businessman decides that the “normal” path he had set up for himself was no longer satisfactory. When you started filming did you set out to change your audience’s concept of “normal”?
Watson: Absolutely. This film is as much about us and our idea of “normal” as it is about Petronella’s idea of “normal.” Dick [the Oklahoma businessman] was really successful, and he had everything under control, but it wasn’t enough. And right now, [with Water4] we all have this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change history and to radically change the world by providing clean water. If we all got involved and started living our lives slightly differently, then that “normal” can change—not only for them, but for us as well.

Paste: The theory behind the Water4 movement is that the residents of the community need to be involved. Were people ever resistant to the project when Water4 first started showing up in their neighborhoods?
Watson: No, never. And that’s the beauty of the model. When Water4 shows up, they’re training the people there. I mean, these guys are rock stars! They walk into a village, they take off their blazers, they’re in jeans, barefoot, and the people in the village look at them like, “Wait. These are the guys that are gonna be drilling the well?” They are their countrymen. And the pride that they feel being a part of the solution is infectious. We use the word “empowered” really loosely, but that’s exactly what it is.

Paste: So, March 22 was World Water Day. What are your hopes for the movement?
Watson: Maybe I’m naïve, but I feel like if people just knew about the situation, they would do something about it. Most of us are just ignorant and we can’t even fathom that this is normal for others, for billions. So even though we’re thousands of miles away we can make an impact and that’s the message I’shared on World Water Day. And I hope others will share the story as well, and get involved however they can. And Water4 is a great way to get involved.

Paste: Thank you for your time!

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