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In Review

Who’s Going to Clean Up This Mess?

3 Films

Gasland by Josh Fox, International WOW Company, 101 minutes
The Tiger Next Door by Camilla Calamandrei, Rolling River Films, 86 minutes
Living Downstream by Chanda Chevannes, The Peoples Picture Company, 82 minutes

At first glance, a documentary about natural gas, another about Americans who own exotic pets, and a third about the link between pesticides and fertilizers and cancer don’t seem to have much in common. But while the films Gasland, The Tiger Next Door, and Living Downstream each focus on a different issue – the environment, animal welfare, public health – all lead to the same question: Whose job is it to protect the planet?

In Gasland, director Josh Fox, whose 19 acres of Pennsylvania forest sit on part of a large rock formation known as the Marcellus Shale, tells viewers about how a local gas company offered him $100,000 for the rights to drill for shale gas on his property. That prompted Fox to look into the issue, and what he found, and documented, was rather horrific. Fox goes from Pennsylvania to Texas to Colorado, interviewing families who have suffered illnesses and generally seen their lives destroyed by the natural gas industry. Some have had their tap water go brown; at least one can light theirs on fire. If it’s sometimes difficult to empathize with Fox, who is both director and screen-hungry protagonist, it’s easy to feel for the woman who tears up while explaining her chronic pain or the people who can no longer taste or smell. It’s also amazing that with all this evidence, anyone is considering allowing drilling to take place near the source of drinking water for more than 15 million people, including the residents of New York City.

movie poster thumbnail, photo of a man wearing a gas mask playing a banjo, drilling rigs in the background

Dennis Hill, the protagonist of The Tiger Next Door, on the other hand, is truly unsympathetic. Hill keeps his 20-odd tigers and lions in small chain link cages and feels it’s his right to hold them however he likes and that the government, by insisting that he keep the cats in better conditions, is trying to strip him of his freedoms. It’s much easier to agree with the animal advocate who says, passionately, “What right do we have to just take any animal we want and keep them in captivity?”

But rather than villainize Hill, director Camilla Calamandrei does an excellent job of revealing how people like him come to believe they have that right, and that, for the most part, these people believe they are showing great care for their animals. It’s shocking to discover, via simple white text on a black background, that experts estimate there are more tigers in private captivity in the United States than there are roaming wild in the world. It turns out the government has essentially allowed a free-for-all when it comes to exotic animals, and very few people are looking out for the welfare of these creatures.

Biologist, author, and cancer-survivor Dr. Sandra Steingraber is the focus of Living Downstream. But Steingraber is so studiously melodramatic in discussing her own struggles that it’s her work and the implications of it for the general public, more than her personal story, which are likely to move viewers. Like her role model Rachel Carson before her, Steingraber traces the country’s love affair with toxic chemicals to World War II. She notes that once the war ended, the country needed to find other uses for the chemicals it had created, and that a whole host of products that were never tested for their impact on human or environmental health were released to the market. Focusing on atrazine, a common herbicide, Steingraber reveals a huge body of scientific evidence linking the chemical to cancer. Another scientist shows viewers a frog, exposed to atrazine in the agricultural runoff of farms in Salinas, California, that started out male and has become female, a result of the chemical’s ability to disrupt the endocrine system. In a clip of a speech to a roomful of DC heavies, Steingraber notes that there’s more evidence now linking atrazine to cancer than there was linking PCBs to cancer when they were banned back in 1979. Using the example of atrazine, Steingraber makes her larger point: We may not have all the specifics on toxics and human health, but we have enough to start doing something about it.

“I’m a population of one; I can’t say with certainty which chemical caused my cancer,” she says. “But what we can say is that when you’ve got carcinogens in our water supply, our air supply, and in our food web, somebody is going to get cancer. When carcinogens are released into the environment, some population of innocent people is condemned to die of cancer.” It’s what Steingraber calls an environmental health human rights crisis, and she says it’s high time did something about it.

In the end, that’s the conclusion reached by all three films: No one else is looking after our health or the planet’s, and it’s high time we took that responsibility on ourselves.

— Amy Westervelt


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