Director Cullen Hoback, right, in What Lies Upstream (Hyrax Films)

This informative documentary, which doubles as a fast-paced investigative thriller, kicks off with the news of a corroded tanker at a Charleston, West Virginia, chemical plant. The site belongs to Freedom Industries, and initially, filmmaker Cullen Hoback wants to find out about the substance that leaked out into the adjacent river that is used for drinking water. That, however, only leads to a bigger mystery: Where are industry regulators who ostensibly prevent events such as this from happening? It turns out the tanker hadn’t been inspected in years, but why was that?

Hoback starts interviewing officials from the state’s Department of Environmental Protection and the local health department, uncovering almost nonexistent regulatory oversight. The main reason is a toothless DEP, which levies few fines, for fear that companies would take their business to other states. Meanwhile, public outrage continues to simmer as Freedom Industries holds press conferences in which their executives say very little. There are also contradictory press releases by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which initially declares the water safe but then releases a warning to pregnant women not to drink it.

Eventually, Hoback tracks down information about the chemical in the river. However, the exact public health threat remains difficult to gauge. Of two of its components, the manufacturer has kept any data about one under wraps, citing confidentiality rules. But more disturbing is that any information about the other compound is completely outdated. As Hoback discovers, this is entirely due to the all too close relationship between private industry and regulatory agencies. As a result, the very system intended to protect the quality of public water, land, and air has been fatally undermined by powerful pro-manufacturing forces.

Though ostensibly a documentary, there are times in which What Lies Upstream plays more like a fictional film. Hoback appears in front of the camera, and many of his interview sequences aren’t of the traditional, talking-head staring-into-the-lens variety. They are instead composed of medium shots of the filmmaker with his subject. The film also frequently cuts to Hoback, revealing his reactions to the various discoveries. For his part, he comes across as an appealing protagonist with an everyman quality. At one point, he shows trepidation about barging into a public meeting, in which private industry executives are rewriting tanker inspection laws, but he proceeds anyway.

Hoback also seems interested in the arcs of certain interview subjects who reappear numerous times. They include a high-ranking official of the West Virginia DEP and a physician for the local health department. The events depicted take place over the course of two-plus years, and one of the more unexpected yet compelling aspects of the film is seeing how these two individuals evolve over time.

What Lies Upstream had its North American premiere at last year’s Slamdance Film Festival. Bowing theatrically at the Maysles Documentary Center in New York City this week, it arrives with small editorial changes, most noticeably the original ending, which looked ahead with trepidation at the incoming Trump administration. It’s been replaced by a recap of everything Scott Pruitt, the current head of the Environmental Protection Agency, has done to undermine regulation on a national level this year. Yet in some ways, the new denouement is more hopeful than the old one, as it implies the country has survived the worst, and its citizenry can still repair a broken system.

The content is certainly compelling enough to stir audiences to action, and the overall package is well made and involving. What Lies Upstream also arrives at the start of a key election year, amid much grumbling that the current commander-in-chief stands for selling out working-class America to big business, and so it’ll be exciting to see if this film’s inquiry, and other like-minded films and books, will resonate with viewers, or voters.

Written and Directed by Cullen Hoback
Released by Hyrax Films
USA. 85 min. Not rated