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Koch Brothers Versus Small Town USA

In Review: Company Town

The riveting Company Town is one of the hardest-hitting documentaries ever made about environmental racism in America. It is to the eco-justice movement what Barbara Kopple’s 1976 Best Documentary Academy Award winner Harlan County USA was to class struggle or Al Gore’s 2007 An Inconvenient Truth was to climate change or Josh Fox’s Oscar-nominated 2010 Gasland was to fracking. It appears to be a classic case of environmental injustice, wherein people of color and the poor are singled out to bear the brunt of well-funded, string-pulling corporations and businesses.

photo of Pastor BouiePhoto by Nicolaus Czarnecki/Company TownPastor David Bouie has taken on the Georgia-Pacific paper and chemical plant in Cossett, AL, which he believes is responsible for "door-to-door cancer" in the community.

Company Town is co-directed, co-written, and co-produced by two women filmmakers, Natalie Kottke-Masocco and Erica Sardarian. The “company” of the nonfiction film’s title is that bête noire of the American Left: Koch Industries, the nation’s second largest privately held firm, worth $115 billion per year and headed by heirs Charles and David Koch, who are widely perceived as the Bond super-villains of the one percent, the billionaires’ Blofelds. In this David and Goliath saga, Charles and David Koch are portrayed as the Goliath trying to crush small town USA.

The Koch Brothers own the Georgia-Pacific paper and chemical plant, which produces Angel Soft and Quilted Northern toilet paper, Brawny paper towels, and Dixie paper cups. The factory is located in the documentary’s “town”: Crossett, Arkansas, a hamlet of only 5,500 residents — many of them Black (some 42 percent, according to the 2010 census) and working class. According to local activists, such as David Bouie, an African-American pastor who features heavily in the documentary, Crossett suffers from “door-to-door cancer,” as Bouie puts it, with skyrocketing cancer rates purportedly due to the Kochs’ factory’s spewing of toxicity.

Georgia-Pacific is the township’s main employer and Company Town contends that due to the tremendous influence the plant’s owners wield, government rules and regulations are flouted — hence the film’s title, as Crossett appears to be owned lock, stock, and barrel by the Kochs, who have the town’s residents over a barrel. Bouie, who worked at the factory for 10 years, contends that 11 out of the 15 homes on Penn Road, where he lives, have been stricken by cancer. Like Preacher Casey, the clergyman turned union organizer in John Steinbeck’s classic 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath, Pastor Bouie spearheads the opposition to the Kochs’ allegedly cancer-generating facility — despite the fact that he must use a breathing apparatus four times per day.

Bouie is one of several of Crossett’s residents living downstream from Georgia-Pacific who rely on respirators, allegedly due to the plant’s pollution that has purportedly caused lung cancer in some residents. According to The Huffington Post: “Dolores Wimberly, a former neighborhood resident, says her daughter Laetitia, a nonsmoker, died of lung cancer at 43; and Penn Road resident Norma Thompson says her husband died of lung cancer, while she continues to have breathing problems, often relying on a respirator.”

Barbara Bouie, Pastor Bouie’s wife — a 25-year Georgia-Pacific employee who says her sisters were casualties of the plant — is part of the pastor’s relentless anti-cancer crusade. And the Bouies are joined by many other residents who have come together to demand justice, including several who have become sick themselves: Simone Smith, who was diagnosed with cancer at age 9 and had an ovary removed; Jessie Johnson, who reportedly worked at Georgia-Pacific while pregnant and whose son had open heart surgery five days after being born, and Leona Edwards, who lived behind “stink creek,” where it’s believed the factory dumped “bad stuff” under the cover of darkness.

photo of aeration ponds in Cossett, AlabamaPhoto by Nicolaus Czarnecki/Company TownAeration ponds are part of Georgia-Pacific's waste treatment system in Cossett, AL.

What most Crossett residents have in common is that they are salt of the Earth people who do not have the wealth or political connections and sway to have prevented the billionaire Koch Brothers from polluting their town and evading regulations. However, what they lack in money, lobbying, political donations and the like, the residents makes up for in determination, as the townsfolk democratically organize to resist the ecological devastation they believe Georgia-Pacific is wreaking upon their community.

The town’s organizers are joined in their struggle against Crossett’s “cancer cluster” and its root cause by various “outside agitators,” including Cheryl Slavant, identified as an “environmental warrior for over 20 years, and Ouachita Riverkeeper,” who helps with health surveys, plus water and air tests. Several chemists, as well as environmental and research scientists, also participate, as does a “Whistleblower” identified as a “former Georgia-Pacific contractor,” who declares: “It took me a while to figure out it was a total cover up. And it took me a while to figure out this was all pollution and this was all poison.... I feel for the community, yes I do. They have been poisoned forever and no one’s doing anything about it. ”

Nationally prominent activists and figures are also interviewed in Company Town, including Van Jones, who served briefly as the Whitehouse Special Advisor on Green Jobs, Enterprise, and Innovation at the beginning of the Obama presidency. According to the Company Town website, Jones — a frequent CNN contributor — “provides a larger context in the film about the environmental injustice in Crossett, Koch Industries’ political influence in Washington, and the EPA’s function to protect Crossett and other communities inflicted with air and water pollution.” (Of course, the documentary was made before Trump appointed Scott Pruitt, who has sued the Environmental Protection Agency more than a dozen times over environmental regulations, to head the EPA.) Investigative reporter Charles Lewis, who founded the Center for Public Integrity, also appears in the film, as do Heather White, former executive director of the Environmental Working Group, and its editor-in-chief, Elaine Shannon.

(On the other hand, for some mysterious reason, camera shy Charles and David Koch, as well as Koch Industries spokesmen, reportedly declined to be interviewed for Company Town. Inquiring minds want to know why they refused to appear on camera.)

In terms of outside solidarity, much of the biggest support for Crossett’s beleaguered residents comes from the filmmakers of this stellar documentary that is exposing this cancer cluster crisis to national audiences, including at 2016’s LA Film Festival, where Company Town premiered and I first saw it. Prior to directing Company Town, Natalie Kottke-Masocco produced probing documentaries with Robert Greenwald for Brave New Films, such as Koch Brothers, an expose that presumably prepared Kottke-Masocco to tackle the rightwing billionaires in her latest 90 minute documentary. Co-creator Erica Sardarian has a background in digital media and TV, producing for outlets such as the Travel Channel, History Channel, E! and FX. Company Town is executive produced by Media Matters for America CEO and founder David Brock and Pres. Clinton’s onetime aide and Hillary Clinton adviser Sidney Blumenthal.

According to the film’s website, “Crossett, Arkansas represents all towns across America polluted by big business.” Together, these filmmakers have advanced not only the cause of environmental justice, but also that of women directors, who are vastly underrepresented in Hollywood. (According to The Hollywood Reporter, in 2016 “Women made up just 7 percent of all directors on the top 250 films.”) Their compelling, must see Company Town opens September 8 at New York’s Cinema Village, with openings in Los Angeles and other cities to follow. For more info see: https://www.companytownfilm.com/.

Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based journalist and film historian/critic. A repeat contributor to Earth Island Journal, Rampell is co-author of The Hawaii Movie and Television Book. The book’s third edition will be released by April 2018.

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