Blue Vinyl, a surprisingly comical look at "life with the backdrop of industry," goes to the hubs of vinyl manufacturing to show the dangerous effects of the pollutant, and in the process identifies it as a danger to humanity on a larger scale. "The story," co-director Judith Helfand says, "is about the effects of dioxin on people's lives. That's why it's a movie, and not a study." Although Blue Vinyl is also a personal film in many ways, the documentary seeks to make a connection between the dangers of dioxin (the toxic product of polyvinyl chloride, or PVC), from the factory level to the consumer level.
Sparing a little time between interviews, meetings and doctor's appointments, Helfand spoke with me about the film and its recent impact on environmental activism, doing her best to pack each answer with as much attention to detail as humanly possible. As evidenced in her work, Helfand makes a habit of covering all her bases.
Helfand's co-director, Daniel B. Gold, was wrapped up in activist projects associated with their upcoming project, Melting Planet, and so, couldn't join us for this interview.
Judith Hefland in Italy.
Photo and title photo by Chris Pilaro.
First, this isn't just a film. It brings with it a movement. Was this your intention or did it result from your involvement with Working Films?
Our intention and our hope, from the beginning, was for the movie to tell the story of the life cycle of vinyl from birth to incineration; what happens to it, what it turns into and its potential for harm. Then the story dovetailed into recent progressive activism and outreach against persistent organic pollution. So we became involved in many strains of activism, but beyond the activism that we incorporated into the film, we wanted it to be a toxic comedy and we wanted it to maintain its narrative.
Working Films helped the film become a useful, supportive tool in environmental outreach and helped utilize the film's ability to be subversive wherever possible.
How have you been screening Blue Vinyl
We launched it at Sundance [in 2002] and used that as something of a laboratory to figure out the best way to leverage, to gain press attention, notoriety, and to experiment with ways we could possibly use Blue Vinyl to help people, both regionally and geographically, see how they fit into this story.
We needed to answer the question, "Where do we fit in the life cycle of this chemical?" Because it's easy enough to see the connection from [the vinyl] plant to the houses that surround the plant, but what about people who don't live near one, or my parents in New York who re-sided their house with the stuff? How do they fit in? That was a really important part.
Working Films organized screenings to show how the story of Blue Vinyl was connected with everyone. It's very easy to ignore, or to think it doesn't affect you because you didn't buy that kind of siding.
The Bucket Brigade takes air samples.
Blue Vinyl aired on TV, with probably 10 million people seeing it on HBO. At Sundance, people found it funny and had a good time with it - so we seized the moment. As part of our entourage at Sundance, we brought the "Bucket Brigade." It turns out there's a huge municipal waste incinerator in Davis County, Utah, where they were burning this garbage. A lot of it was vinyl and when you incinerate vinyl you produce dioxin. You can learn a bit more about that in the extra short Let The Consumer Revolution Begin!
So Working Films helped organize a training with Mormon housewives in Davis County and what was really incredible was that people unrelated by class or race or income started to link arms. The activism connected the dots between the production facility where the fabrication process begins, to the families who use it, the hospitals who use it, or the people who live near municipal incinerators.
We tried to make the life cycle of film follow the life cycle of vinyl. We did screenings to support organizing around the health care industry. We tried to encourage taking vinyl out of the waste stream of hospitals and physical structure of hospitals. Hospitals incinerate their tools constantly and that pumps dioxin into the air, perpetuating the toxic burden. This trajectory has led us down a really interesting path.
There's a sequence in the film in which you see Habitat for Humanity building a home and relying upon the literal support offered by the vinyl companies. Why did you consider this ironic?
Well, they're doing incredibly good work but it is deeply ironic that these two trade associations - and that's what they are - were the largest corporate sponsors of Habitat. The question is, how can they be doing so much good? They're using these toxic materials that damage the environment and are dangerous... but they're doing so much good for Habitat! It's complicated.
And, you know, we don't show the perfect solution in the film, because the solutions weren't quite there yet. Otherwise, we wouldn't have had to get very expensive reclaimed wood for the house siding. We were trying to make a point that regular middle class people should be able to get healthy, affordable alternatives to vinyl siding. The fact that it was unbelievably difficult was part of the irony and the sort of comedy that would get people to think differently.
Dad: "But I haven't had breakfast!"
JH: "You'll have breakfast in the car."
I'm really glad you brought up the expensive wood. It's entertaining to watch the scene around that, when you anxiously drive your vinyl siding around while your father eats in the car...
We called all these places to see if they could recycle the vinyl siding we removed from my Mom and Dad's house, and no one would take it because they don't take vinyl and can't recycle it. This after we got all their numbers from www.vinylinfo.com and the site said, "Take vinyl here to recycle it." We couldn't drop it at a dump - that would have defeated the purpose of the film. So we drove to a tool and die cutter.
It does seem that your solution to the problem posed by Blue Vinyl is not a solution others can imitate. You purchase wood to recover the house that the average consumer couldn't afford and you press the siding into tchotchkes, which is a beautiful idea, but no one can follow your example.
My answer would be that we had two points to make. One was to point out that it's difficult for regular middle class people, who don't have a lot of money, to purchase building materials that don't hurt anyone in any part of their life cycle; that's what the supposedly cheap vinyl solution represents. You'll never have to paint it again and you can wash it with a hose and it's really easy to care for. We looked for lots of alternatives but, because we had the constraints of matching the prices of vinyl siding and fitting our findings to what the average consumer could afford, the truth is, we really couldn't find a healthy solution that fit. Also, we wanted to show how far a person might have to go to find something that wouldn't hurt anything during its life cycle. It was ridiculous what we had to go through to find a place to recycle the material - and in the end we couldn't do it. So we found another solution.
The Heflands make tchotchkes.
Technically, vinyl can't be recycled, so they just keep making more, and then it gets down-cycled, and finally goes to an incinerator, creates dioxin and hurts people.
The message on each tchotchke.
People ask, "Why'd you cut it into 40K pieces?" We wanted everyone to hold it in their hands and realize, "Oh my gosh, there's nothing I can do with this but hold onto it." This is what it means when you make something that adds to the ever-increasing burden; they became these totems. And the totem is both a piece of the house and a part of the movie, it's a warning and an action. This totem says, "You can be part of the transforming organizational initiative." We weren't suggesting trying this at home.