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  • Agua, Inc.:Water Wars, Aqua-Terrorism, and Speculative Economy in Latinx and Transborder Cinema
  • Kristy L. Ulibarri (bio)

In 1999, the World Bank forced the Bolivian agency SEMAPA (Servicio Municipal de Agua Potable y Alcantarillado [Municipal Drinking Water and Sewage Service]) to privatize their water supply to pay off debt. The sole contract bidder was aguas del tunari, a consortium of British, Spanish, and Bolivian companies. The consortium's terms were aggressive: a mandatory forty-year contract, installation of water meters at their discretion, charges for communal water systems, required fees for the collection of rainwater, and plans to complete the Misicuni Dam project, which resulted in rate increases that charged residents a substantial percentage of their monthly income. Protests in Cochabamba, Bolivia, began almost immediately and intensified in 2000 as protestors barricaded streets and highways, implemented a general strike, and occupied the Central Plaza. All this was met with tear gas and police violence that eventually led President hugo banzer to call a state of emergency. Residents called this la guerra del agua, and their fight led to the reversal of water privatization in the area.1

Just over a decade later, Icíar Bollaín directs and releases También la lluvia (Even the Rain) [End Page 431] (2010), set during these same historic events. The film is about the making of a Spanish conquest film amid the Cochabamba Water War and utilizes documentary-style camera work while scrutinizing the transborder film industry. The backdrop of the Water War paints Bollaín's film as a social realist picture, but its stylistic choices also demonstrate how the culture industry participates in the very structures of exploitation that gave rise to la guerra del agua. Produced in Mexico a couple of years prior, Peruvian-American filmmaker Alex Rivera releases Sleep Dealer (2008), a futuristic film about water corporatocracy in Mexico and the U.S. that shows how this corporate governance produces resource scarcity, labor exploitation, and ever-more specialized forms of security. While Rivera's speculative film interrogates the very real and current violences of market globalization, its imagination for resistance is unable to envision a future fully outside the new economy of water. While both films engage with the relationship between water privatization and water scarcity through very different cinematic styles and genres, both reveal how the culture industry plays a powerful role in this market violence.

This essay begins with these real and fictional water wars because it is concerned with how resource scarcity, especially regarding water, structures these political, economic, and cultural encounters and entanglements. In one sense, transnational and multinational corporate practices in these cinematic narratives dismantle the economies of the people and dispossess them from the material realities of water infrastructure, but in another sense, this violence is the catalyst for imagining revolution and resistance to an overwhelming global economy. This essay considers this paradox through Rivera's Sleep Dealer and Bollaín's También la lluvia. Both films were shot and released during and in the wake of the global Great Recession (2007–2009), and both bring to the screen futuristic and historical worlds where water shapes the livelihoods of transborder [End Page 432]

communities. The two films join a small but significant archive of Latinx and transborder films about these communities' relationship to water. Select films such as Robert Redford's 1988 adaptation of John Nichols's The Milagro Beanfield War (1974), Carl Franklin's 2013 adaptation of Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima (1972), Jonás Cuáron's Desierto (2015), and Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water (2017) all utilize the figure of water (or lack thereof) to interrogate social relations. By calling these films Latinx and transborder, I mean to foreground their transmigratory crossing and moving between and over physical and figurative borders—nationally, economically, and ethno-racially—primarily across Latin America, Mexico, and the U.S., and such movements often lay bare the structures of power and inequality embedded within the social order.2 Sleep Dealer and También la lluvia especially show how market forces produce anxieties about water scarcity that target predominantly racialized and precarious communities. Sleep Dealer and También la lluvia...