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'Water & Power: A California Heist'

U.S. Documentary; 87 minutes.

The history of California is written in water, and in the shady deals that allow a few to control it, director Marina Zenovich shows in her fact-packed documentary "Water & Power: A California Heist."

In the middle of a four-year drought, Zenovich goes to the towns of East Porterville and Lost Hills, amid the rich croplands of the San Joaquin Valley, where locals can't get clean tap water. However, in the corporate agribusinesses near those towns, there's plenty of water to grow almonds, pistachios and pomegranates.

The movie begins by detailing the long and tangled history of water rights in California — and evoking the water-rights dispute depicted in the classic movie "Chinatown." Then Zenovich chronicles the creation of a massive water project in the 1960s, to divert the abundant water of northern California south to the farms of Kern County and to the suburbs of Los Angeles.

The movie also reveals a secret deal made in 1994 by water-using state and local agencies with the agribusinesses that desperately wanted the water. That sweetheart deal wound up putting the majority of the diverted water — paid for by the taxpayers of California, mind you — into the hands of a single massive farm company.

The difficulty of such an exposé, as Zenovich ("Roman Polanski: Wanted & Desired") explained at a Q&A after a screening, is making the complex issues compelling enough to watch. Mostly, she does this with a wealth of interviews, an occasional homage to "Chinatown," and some arresting facts and figures. By the end, Zenovich mounts a strong argument that water is becoming the new oil — and the pursuit of it means the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer.

– Sean P. Means —

Also showing:

"Water & Power: A California Heist" screens again at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, at the following time and venue:

• Saturday, Jan. 28, 2:30 p.m., Egyptian Theatre, Park City.