The CWSE recently held the second session in our ongoing seminars series on “Women/Embodiment, Environments, and the Arts”, a series facilitated by Susan Aaron, a former CWSE Graduate Assistant.
“This latest seminar on January 28th was a screening of “Toxic Trespass”, a 2006 film in which artists, researchers, and educators dealing with toxins in children and environments in Ontario communities, primarily Windsor and near Sarnia, engage with citizens, governments, and environmental health scientists. Why are there residues and new toxic chemicals in these communities, and who is exposed to them and aware of them? Director Barri Cohen won the Writers Guilds of Canada award for her documentary writing in “Toxic Trespass”. The film is a co-production of the National Film Board (NFB) and If You Love our Children Productions.
One of the executive producers of the film, Dr. Dorothy Goldin-Rosenberg was in attendance. She is an environmental health lecturer at OISE, an environmental health advocate, and the primary creator of the educational resources that accompany the film. Dorothy opened the discussion by explaining how the project began amongst environmental health advocates seeking to create a tool to aid education for social change. They wanted to focus on a “cluster community” dealing with toxins. They approached the NFB, who suggested Barri as a director.
Dorothy encouraged participants at the seminar to inform themselves about the concerns of the film. She set out the popular education format of her resource material as the engagement of head, guts, and feet – notice, acknowledge need, and then become involved.
This screening at the CWSE featured the film’s writer and director Barri Cohen, who lead a discussion on the artistry and the film’s origins. She asked, how does the artistry of the film reveal how to better watch for and connect environmental and social engagements in a community?
Barri’s aesthetic is focused on investigation and participation. Encouraged by the NFB, Barrie immersed herself in the film’s community of concern, and uses of humor to make points of engagement for change more accessible. She used Michael Murphy as another example of this genre of director. She says,
“I wanted to ensure the film would engage audiences with humor and relation. We were able to therefore braid or weave the serious facts and figures and stories in with a tone that was attempted to be at times, mordent or ironic. Rather than straight out shock and outrage – these feelings had to be couched in terms that were ironic in their disconnect with what the State says, what the State does and doesn’t do in terms of protecting our children, our human health, human health rights, and the environment.”
Barri participated to the point of testing her own and her daughter/s blood for toxins, which resulted in finding currently used and long-banned chemicals. She was welcomed into at least one of the communities as the first filmmaker approaching them.
As Barri noted,
“The 6 year old film dealt with many issues, but the overarching one being accountability around our industrial way of life –.how it implicates and affects local communities, native ones in particular, the air, water, and ground we live with – and most principally the developmental pathways of our physical development.”
Barri’s creativity in her use of the film medium reveals these cultural frameworks at odds with health. She also tried to be up to date over the year of filming in actions that were relevant to the film’s communities.
Barri appeared on screen traveling by car through the province’s green landscape to the cities, grounding the communities and their activists in their local environments. She began in Windsor amidst diesel truck traffic that crosses into Detroit carrying a large percentage of the province’s economy. There, a father and mother are dealing with cancers and lack of research. Barri then moved on to the Sarnia reserve of Aamjiwnaang, bordered by factories making products from oil in what is called Sarnia’s “chemical valley”. The film spoke to the large majority of the reserve children who need assistance to breathe properly. At that point literature had been published by community and scientists writing together about genetic mutations causing a percentage rise in female babies.Yet, the community activists and environmental scientists found a lack of regulation and testing of the chemicals.
Barri traveled accompanied by a carnival-like soundtrack. The humorous and macabre music distanced the viewer from the revelation of the sad norm in the children’s lives. Animation, both archival and newly created, shows the ongoing production of petroleum byproducts, and the chemical monsters disrupting genetics. Toxic scientific facts scroll across the screen, against for example a backdrop of an activist mother waiting impatiently in her kitchen for change. The landscape and the waters contrasts with the pink sky filled with black smoke from the factories. Two environmental health scientists speak about research revealing the toxins and their effects, and speak with Barri on screen about their research exposing gaps and disparity in Canadian research on poor air in cities and the effects on children.
Barri’s interactions with a Canadian health bureaucracy appear as repeated phone calls to Health Canada as she sits in her editing room. She cannot reach anyone about the film concerns. The ministry is presented by a Canadian doctor who left it as incapable of dealing with industrial momentum. However, as Dr. Devra Davis suggests, ours is not to finish what we start, but just to start. “Toxic Trespass” ends after revealing communities and researchers finding ways of starting government studies, publishing together, and creating bylaws banning pesticides.
The film is shown regularly in Toronto by the Women’s Healthy Environments Network (WHEN) and is available in the University of Toronto’s Media Commons library. Both have copies of the educational resource that covers how to learn more, network, and start to remove environmental risk in your own home. The DVD is also available at the Toronto Public Library.”
–Susan Aaron, Women/Embodiment & the Arts series facilitator
The film’s website: www.toxictrespass.com