Canadaville, USA. Directed by Abbey Jack Neidik. Quebec: DLI Productions, 2007. 52 minutes.
The City Dark. Directed by Ian Cheney. New York: Wicked Delicate Films, 2011. 84 minutes and 60 minutes.
Living Downstream. Directed by Chanda Chevannes. Toronto: The People’s Picture Company, 2010. 85 minutes and 55 minutes.
The City Dark offers a fascinating glimpse into the world of amateur astronomers, astrophysicists, public health professionals, researchers and individual citizens through storytelling and animation to make the case for us to open our eyes and appreciate darkness. The documentary begins in the busy city that I call home, New York, NY. As the camera follows the documentary’s narrator, Ian Cheney, through Times Square, you learn more and more about the impetus for him to explore the connection between light, darkness, and health. This documentary takes a fascinating look at the increase in light pollution and its many, relatively ignored consequences for health. Through a personal story that chronicles Cheney’s interest in astronomy and compelling narratives from those who love to see the stars, the film offers many different perspectives to frame the relationship between light and health.
One vignette that resonated with me highlights light as a necessity for communities plagued by violence. However, while light can be a tool for protection (i.e., it may prevent crime), it can also contribute to higher rates of cancer for those who work night shifts. And light pollution from cities can disorient sea turtle hatchlings, causing them to wander inland instead of making their way to the water. This short documentary thus opened my eyes to the implications of light on everything from our connectedness to things outside of ourselves to crime rates in communities plagued by fear and violence. Short and to the point in the 60-minute version, The City Dark offers an introductory look into one of many consequences of our modern world.1 While this documentary covered a variety of outcomes related to our overexposure to light, it left me wanting to know more about light pollution as a largely overlooked environmental issue.
Abbey Jack Neidik’s documentary, Canadaville, USA follows three families on their journey to recover what is left of their lives after Hurricane Katrina. These families have all been relocated to Magnaville, the “pet project” of a Canadian billionaire, Frank Stronach, outside the rural town of Somerville, Louisiana. Neidik’s film offers a comfortably objective and critical look into the project, creating a unique opportunity to see the impact of oversimplifying the statement “give a man a fish and he can eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will survive for a lifetime.” Richard Stupart’s analysis of such neoliberal practices in “7 Worst International Aid Ideas” provides an interesting, straightforward perspective on the events that unravel in Canadaville, USA. It cuts to the chase and highlights a few of the many complicated issues with development aid, such as those resulting from throwing money at problems that are rooted in poverty.2 A more in-depth explanation of the issues touched on by Stupart are articulated by Geoffrey Whitehall and Cedric Johnson in their chapter entitled “Making Citizens in Magnaville: Katrina Refugees and Neoliberal Self-Governance.” They use the term benevolent neoliberalism to describe the impact of Magnaville on the citizens that lived there during the five years of its existence.3
The dignity that many residents had in telling their stories on their own terms within the vignettes of the movie provided a great analysis of the good, bad, and ugly aspects of the Magnaville “experiment.” This is what makes the documentary comfortably objective. Each family tells why they decided to stay or leave Magnaville in their own words. As a tool, Canadaville, USA provides a story that can be used to better examine how we invest in building healthy communities while being respectful and careful to not create bigger problems.
The most important message conveyed in the documentary Living Downstream is the need for comprehensive chemical policy reform that utilizes the precautionary principle to protect the health of all people. Sandra Steingraber is the main narrator for this documentary, which is available in both as a feature film and in a one-hour version. Based on the book she wrote in 2010, Living Downstream is an investigation of the many chemicals that we come in contact with every day in our busy lives.4 Because it illuminates the connections between the chemicals used to make our lives easier and their expanding impact on our health this documentary is a great teaching tool. The evidence conveying the documentary’s primary message is delivered in a journalistic way, and stories from those affected and scientific evidence demonstrate the global scope of the problem.
The most haunting portion of the documentary is when the camera follows Steingraber speaking about her family. With solemn music and bleak photos of landscapes of the town she grew up in, Steingraber slowly relates the impact of cancer on her mother, uncles, and a long list of family members, including herself. Her story comes to a climax when she eliminates the argument about genetics by disclosing that she is adopted. The implications of this story are only strengthened by the current issue that many West Virginians are dealing with as I write this review. In January 2014 over 300,000 residents in Charleston, West Virginia, received word that 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, a chemical with little health effect information known about it, had contaminated the public water system and was distributed to thousands of residents. If this catastrophe had occurred only a few years ago, I am certain that it would have been one of the many vignettes in Living Downstream that demonstrate the very pressing times we are in. My only hope is that movies like Living Downstream will have an impact on a variety of audiences to deliver a clear and concise message about the need for protective chemical regulation.
Together, these films explore the complexities of understanding and creating solutions to environmental problems. Although they focus on particular aspects of the human-environment relationship, they could also be used to explore broader issues related to social justice, such as the systemic nature of poverty; the uneven effects of development, modernization, and industrialization; how facets of globalization shape people’s lives on a local scale; and the dynamic interconnections between human lives, other living beings, and the non-living beings of this planet.
1 There is also a feature-length version of this film; the 60-minute version is part of the PBS POV series.
2 Richard Stupart, “7 Worst International Aid Ideas,” Matador Network, 20 February, 2012. See also Teju Cole, “The White Savior Industrial Complex,” Atlantic, 21 Mar. 2012.
3 Geoffrey Whitehall and Cedric Johnson, “Making Citizens in Magnaville: Katrina Refugees and Neoliberal Self-Governance,” in The Neoliberal Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, Late Capitalism and the Remaking of New Orleans (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011), 60–84.
4 Sandra Steingrabber, Living Downstream: An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2010). See also Rachel Aviv, “A Valuable Reputation,” New Yorker, 10 Feb. 2014, and Wendee Nicole, “A Question for Women’s Health: Chemicals in Feminine Hygiene Products,” Environmental Health Perspectives, 122 (2014): A70–A75, http://dx.doi.org/10.1289/ehp.122-A70.