God, I dislike saying something like this in the title of my blog! It's prosaic and flat. . . but DAMN IT -- it's true! The reason I started this blog was to bring attention to films that are potent, mind-blowing, revolutionary and could, if enough people went to see them, change the world.
I just don't think anyone could walk away from a film like Living Downstream and not be forever changed. It is such an intimate portrait and beautifully told -- about a phenomenal woman who has taken on the mission of exposing the real causes of cancer. The film is told from Sandra Steingraber’s personal experience of living as a cancer survivor and her quest to educate us. Sandra is, without a doubt, a modern day Rachel Carson; an ecologist, scientific scholar, and activist. Sandra has a genuine grace about her. She is thoughtful, courageous and has a luminous intelligence.
I saw the film last night at the George Lucas Theater in the Presidio. (It was quite fun to see the film in this venue). I went with a friend who was an environmental health writer for many years. We had dinner at GREENS in Fort Mason overlooking the Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. We sat at table with a view you couldn't pay for - the lights on the water, swaying sailboats, and the mythic bridge in the distance. My friend had left the environmental health field, I think partly so that she could enjoy her life. We talked a lot about our need to find happiness in life despite the burden of the work we are doing in the world.
After we left the film, my friend said, “You know, there is a lot of attention focused on Climate Change but little attention to the toxic chemicals that are giving 41% of us Americans cancer. The figure is staggering. Sandra Steingraber uses the analogy of the World War II Memorial in DC, where each star on the memorial represents 100 lives. More than 400,000 Americans died in that war, while more than 600,000 people die every year from cancer.
The filmmakers Chanda Chevannes and Sandra Steingraber have been working together for almost six years on this effort and are in daily communication. It is a monumental achievement and one that hopefully will catalyze a movement to make industries accountable. Last year I was thinking about making a short film on the cancer "industry," after doing a little study on the subject and found that the majority of the money spent (billions of dollars) is for DNA research and very little of it on the cause. Find a cure but avoid the cause. Seemed absolutely crazy to me. There are ubiquitous chemicals that surround us; in our food, clothes, furniture, houses, rivers, skies, cars, even mother’s milk. In fact mother's milk tests show flame retardant, rocket fuel, Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs), and pesticides. That alone should have cancer researchers changing course. It's an interesting game that the cancer industry, our government and chemical industries play with us.
In 1964, two senior scientists at the National Cancer Institute, Wilhelm Hueper and W.C. Conway, wrote, "Cancers of all types and all causes display even under already existing conditions, all the characteristics of an epidemic in slow motion." The unfolding epidemic was being fueled, they said in 1964, by "increasing contamination of the human environment with chemical and physical carcinogens and with chemicals supporting and potentiating their action." Their words were met with silence. In Living Downstream, Sandra uses the word "silence" quite often. Like Rachel Carson (author of Silent Spring she knew that remaining passive in the face of this escalating epidemic is literally killing us.
Living Downstream is a very intimate telling of Sandra’s life, and that is why it is such a compelling documentary. It is a fascinating account of her journey from her small town in Illinois, where industries producing toxic chemicals set the stage for Sandra's illness and quest to educate the world.
In Silent Spring, Rachel Carson wrote, "I do contend we have put poisonous and biologically potent chemicals indiscriminately into the hands of persons wholly ignorant of their potentials for harm. We have subjected enormous numbers of people to contact with these poisons, without their consent and often without their knowledge."
Sandra Steingraber is a biologist, a poet, and a loving mother of two children, and she is a force to be reckoned with – during her Q&A with the director of the film one can see the intensity of her commitment to this battle.
Sandra says, "Like a jury's verdict or an adoption decree, a cancer diagnosis is an authoritative pronouncement, one with the power to change your identity. It sends you into an unfamiliar country where all the rules of human conduct are alien. “
See Living Downstream and read Sandra's book of the same title. Also, here’s a piece of eco-conspiracy -- a controversy erupted when the reviewer of Living Downstream in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, who described the book as "a biased work," was exposed to be a senior official with W.R. Grace, a prominent chemical firm. W.R. Grace was a defendant in the notorious Woburn, Massachusetts’s pollution case dramatized in the John Travolta film, A Civil Action.
The film starts with this wonderful parable:
There was once a village overlooking a river.
The people who lived there were very kind.
These residents, according to parable, began noticing increasing numbers of drowning people caught in the river’s swift current. And so they went to work devising ever more elaborate technologies to resuscitate them.
So preoccupied were these heroic villagers with rescue and treatment that they never thought to look upstream to see who was pushing the victims in.
This film is a walk up that river. The river of human cancer.