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Past Article

Judith Helfand's Toxic Comedy
By Sara Schieron
April 4, 2005 - 12:09 AM PDT

"What do we think is a reasonable degree of danger?"

Can you explain the phrase, "The Watergate of Molecules"?

Charlie Cray calls dioxin, the result or emission of PVC, the "Watergate of Molecules." I think it's pretty funny. Watergate, you know, they got caught with their pants down. Watergate was about using incredible amounts of power in a way that was incredibly corrupt with lots of subterfuge. I guess what he means is, you scratch the surface of this molecule dioxin, and you're going to find an incredible story and a lot of subterfuge, and eighteen minutes of silence that you'll have to put together.

You integrate some helpful Yiddish sayings into your voiceover, and in the DVD extras, there's a good deal of activity happening in synagogues. Did you go out of your way to identify and involve the Jewish community in this activism or in the film? And do you feel your Judaism influenced the film?

There's the movie and then there's the use of the movie. I embrace my Judaism all the time, but what we're trying to do with the movie is create an activist piece. Happily, the film has been used to effect by an organization called Building in Good Faith which tries to get faith-based institutions to erect their buildings with the mission of educating and honoring the next generation. So, if they really want to send a message that they honor and celebrate the life cycle, they can build healthy buildings. And in so doing send a powerful message of respect and responsibility.

Right, "Don't just build a building, build a just building".

Well, in the process, this change, which is happening on an institutional level, activates the purchasing power of religious groups and this will finally create demand for healthy substitutes.

I'm creating some intergenerational rustling, saying, "Mom and Dad, we learned a harsh lesson because of my cancer." We're asking, "What is our debt to the world?" What are the implications of our actions and can we use our actions? Can we use our status as a family that's experienced trauma because of chemical exposure? Can that history help us? And what do we do with that? Do we learn from that and can we offer something from our knowledge to others - is it our job or not? That's what's going on with my parents. I'm the eager upstart daughter. They're reticent, as most people are, and sometimes annoyed, and we used that reticence. Consumers usually have only the information they can read on the side of the box.

Moving a house in Mossville.

There's that moment when we see that house in Lake Charles moved from one side of town - a side of Lake Charles with a view that looks just like view from my parents room - to the other. And you wonder, "Why does their house have to move?"

When I return home, after seeing this human saga happen in Lake Charles, I see that it's the end of generations living across the street and next to each other in a community they've lived in for 60 years and this community is destroyed. In that sense, Mossville is a very literal result of what happens when we give industry a green light for them to help the government decide what is and isn't safe. With less and less control, and with a less effective E.P.A., it's hard to have real precautionary laws about the matter. Mossville is a cautionary tale happening right in front of our eyes.

There's deep irony in the fact that you want to create a home with hope and good faith and you're bequeathing the tenants of your home this hope, but in the process you also give them this toxic burden. We need to find a solution, some conclusion that we can all dance at a bar mitzvah because of, and everyone can be happy.

The first part of the process is the activism that Working Films organized. They set out to bring the message of our film to communities that may seem detached or distant neighbors to the communities who are more directly related to vinyl factories or dioxide casualties. They do outreach, showing the film to discreet constituencies in an effort to show that this problem is not someone else's problem. This problem doesn't just go from Italy to Louisiana. It's in your neighborhood and you can do something to change that, to protect yourself and your loved ones.

Working Films has organized 60 or more screenings now for the American Institute of Architects and they watch this together, in big swatches. Kaiser Permanente watched it as a group, and the information helped push them to challenge their distributor to create PVC-free hard flooring. If we do that, it's not just good for our hospitals; ultimately, that could become an industry standard and it will force the price down, so that, in the end, citizens can buy it.

That action shifts the marketplace. That's the goal of all outreach and organizing: to bring the film to discreet constituencies that hold the purse strings - and when they do something, the industry watches and says, "We'd better follow suit." Other purchasers and mega-consumers follow, too.

Ampelio and his wife, in Venice.

When it came to Billy Baggett's case library and Dr. Malconi's eternal file library of tumors from the tests he did in the 70s and 80s, I felt that these collections became this metaphor for the film at large. The results of Malconi's tests were silenced, as were the victims of the factories. It seemed as though you, as storytellers, were forced to find ways to quantify suffering. You use this idea similarly when you show Elaine Ross in Louisiana, the widow who said, "I remember the day I couldn't hear my husband's voice anymore", and then we go to Ampelio Magro in Italy, with his wife beautifully framed in the background, listening as he speaks through a voice box... It's as if you're turning this otherwise muffled collective cry into something as tangible as a paraffin box.

In the three years I've been talking about this film I've never heard that parallel.

Thank you. What parallel?

The husbands losing their voices, and -

Should I ask another question?

No... no. Because of my cancer, my tumor and cross sections of my body are in paraffin blocks in Chicago and I'm always amazed. There was a real parallel between my life and that archive. Not just because I felt something personal about them, but because they represent a huge testament. These paraffin boxes hold secrets.

As a filmmaker, they were a challenge. We had to figure out how we could personalize it so that it's not just a statistic, so that it's real. Hopefully all sorts of industries will start thinking, "Maybe enough is enough. Maybe it's time look at ourselves as different kinds of decision makers." People are going to be in a position to choose building elements that will make an impact on a larger scale. They'll have to ask themselves what they are going to dedicate their $20 million house of worship to. It's not about statistics or these studies or the chemistry documents. It is about the woman who says, "And then I couldn't hear his voice anymore." It is about Ampelio and his wife sitting there, watching and listening. You can see the horror on her face and, at some point, she's going to become one of those widows who sits in the courtroom, day in and day out, watching the trial against the vinyl company executives, waiting for a justice greater than money can buy.

The goal for Blue Vinyl is to work on someone who will make these decisions. It's also going to work on them emotionally because it's about people and their lives. But it's how you frame that, how you tell that story, and how you pack all the frames with that resonant quality. That's why this is a movie and not a study.

Dan's research found Dr. Brand-Rauf. What he says really sets up a challenge. He shows us the results of tests done on present-day vinyl workers and the mutations that appear after just a few days of exposure to the vinyl factory.

This research, this information, it isn't about what happened in the past. It's about what's going on now, today, and it will stay quiet until those mutations turn into full blown tumors, as we expect they might. So the question becomes, "What do we think is a reasonable degree of danger?" And is this a choice we can make for others? In the end, the burden of proof always falls upon the citizen and that must be something we can change. And I know we can, because we have already started.

back to past articles >>>

"Where do we fit in the life cycle of this chemical?"
"What do we think is a reasonable degree of danger?"

back to past articles


Sara Schieron
teaches film studies, produces film shorts and documentaries, and writes for occasional journals and web sites.

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view past articles

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