Subtext of a Young Filmmaker’s Education

Laura Dunn takes her environmental documentary "Green" back to Louisiana where it all began.


We’ve been on the road to Baton Rouge for an hour when Laura Dunn, a 25-year-old student filmmaker dressed in bell bottoms and platform shoes, snaps in a CD playing “Gasoline Dreams,” a song by hip-hop band OutKast. “All right! all right! all right! all right! all right!” the song begins, prompting a burst of dancing in the front seat from Dunn, who will prove on this trip that she is as willful as she is energetic. Her light brown hair bobs, and she laughs, which she does easily. “Don’t everybody like the smell of gasoline!” the song booms. Suddenly the dancing stops and Laura is still. “Hey, that could be our theme song,” she says to David Carroll, a 34-year-old musician who approached her after a screening and said he wanted to help. He does media relations; today’s he’s driving to Baton Rouge. “Don’t everybody like the smell of gasoline. That’s so perfect.”

It’s a cold, rainy Saturday, and we’re going to Louisiana for a week-long trip to bring Dunn’s documentary movie, Green, back to the people she filmed, the residents of small, poor, and mostly black communities on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, a 100-mile stretch of river often called “Cancer Alley.” Her 50-minute movie, which covers the impact of petrochemical pollution on these communities, is ambitious, technically tight, very pretty, and sincere–a fresh take, she hopes, on a situation that’s received coverage from “60 Minutes,” ABC News, CNN, E Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, and The Nation. Most recently the chemical industry was examined by Bill Moyers, whose PBS documentary “Trade Secrets,” on the health risks posed by chemicals and the industry’s failure to inform workers of these risks, was clearly intended to use Moyers’ reputation to force companies to be more accountable to the public and not just to markets. His documentary also starts in Cancer Alley, but focuses on uncovering evidence that will damn the industries’ own rhetoric.

In contrast, Green sews together real stories of people who live along the Mississippi, provoking its viewers, though provoking them into doing what isn’t always clear: Shut down chemical plants? Join the cause for environmental justice? Feel bad and sorry? This raises a set of broader questions. What should a documentary try to do? If it’s pretty and political, how do you know which your viewers are responding to? Dunn’s approach is hard to pull off because it’s novel, says Don Howard, Dunn’s advisor at UT-Austin’s Department of Radio-Television-Film. Unlike other left-progressive movies, he says, “it both challenges the audience to confront the emotions of the situation and also trusts them to make their own judgments about it.” That’s not all, though. Dunn’s approach is hard to pull off because its message scatters like a shotgun blast–where you’re already standing determines how much you get hit.

Dunn and Carroll want Green and the tour to direct media attention at environmental issues in Louisiana, and their sense of purpose is directly related to how much of it they receive. Which right now–except for me in the back seat–is none. I’m along because I want to see how Green is received in Louisiana. I admire Dunn’s sense of duty about bringing her movie back to where it began, and I know that somehow this tour is going to change her.

With OutKast pounding, we slide by a tanker truck, a cylinder of glossy metal, radiant even in the rain. “Here’s our first sign,” Dunn says, “That we’re entering the chemical zone.”

The daughter of a plant geneticist and a cardiovascular surgeon, Dunn was born in New Orleans. After her parents divorced, she was shuttled around the country, developing the performance skills that also gave her a minor career as a child actor in repertory theater. As I see in Louisiana, Dunn films people who satisfy something she needs: warm men, tough women, and dying children, all of them living in a hostile environment. By the time she got to Yale, she wanted to study acting, but in her first semester, disillusioned with the self-centeredness of other actors, she quit. To this day, she hates to have her picture taken. When she was a senior, her class voted her “Most Likely to Join Heaven’s Gate,” referring to the California cult that committed mass suicide several years ago.

As a junior at Yale, she chronicled a year of custodial strikes in a 30-minute documentary, a filmic personal essay on the unskilled labor that makes possible the privileged lives of Yale students. Along with Kyle Henry’s University, Inc., a documentary about the closing of the Texas Union theater at UT-Austin, Subtext of a Yale Education has screened at dozens of film festivals and college campuses. Dunn doesn’t sit around; she’s already at work on a third movie, tentatively titled Thirty Spokes, an impressionistic piece about politics, energy, and the intersections of both–wind farms, presidential inaugurations, oil wells.

She started Green in December of 1998, when she read an article in The Wall Street Journal about the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, whose activities were curtailed by the Supreme Court of Louisiana after the clinic was involved in a successful, high-profile fight to keep Shintech, a Japanese chemical company, from building a polyvinyl chloride plant in the town of Convent. Dunn called then-clinic director Bob Kuehn, who invited her to a meeting of the National Environmental Justice Advisory Committee. On that trip, she met many of the people she put into Green, assigning herself the task of bringing their stories to larger audiences. Over two years, she was in Louisiana for a total of 10 weeks, finishing with 100 hours of footage. A rough cut was ready in April of 2000; the movie was finished the following December, when it screened in Austin for the first time.

That month, along with a review of Green, the Austin Chronicle ran a photo that depicted Dunn as an ethereal wood nymph emerging from a bamboo grove. She hates this photo, because it suggests that she’s a young woman who’s as naïve as she is exotic. A female professor told her the photo had damaged her credibility, and Dunn fears becoming the hot, new character in the Cancer Alley story, what she calls “the commodification of Laura Dunn.” She seems overly alarmed–it’s not as if McDonald’s is casting Happy Meals toys in her likeness. Often her reluctance to appear self-promoting dissolves into genuine shyness. “I don’t know why people just don’t watch the movie,” she told me. “I just want to be transparent.”

Our first stop in Baton Rouge is Willie Fontenot’s house, a bungalow with Mardi Gras beads hanging from the blooming camellia bushes. Fontenot, a native Louisianan, is national chairman of Clean Water Action, as well as a community liaison specialist at the Louisiana Attorney General’s office. A historian once called him “the grandfather of Louisiana environmentalism,” and he’s Dunn’s tour guide and political guru. She sees him as a father figure, and he returns the affection. An owlish man with thick glasses, he likes telling how she showed up with her cameraman, a strict vegan. After they’d spent two weeks filming and eating only textured vegetable protein, he took them out to dinner at a local Mexican restaurant.

Dunn brings him up-to-date on Green news, still disappointed that NPR didn’t bite on the story. “Everyone’s saying it’s an old story, Willie,” she complains. “Everybody’s saying it’s been done. It’s jelly bracelets. It’s Chinese shoes. It’s so Eighties. It’s over.” Wade Goodwyn, a Dallas-based NPR reporter, was “really into the story,” Laura says, but when he pitched it to his editors, they told him Cancer Alley had been amply covered. (“There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the story,” David Sweeney, acting national desk editor at NPR, told me later. “But it turned out to be not new news for us.”)

If you were going to make a documentary about Cancer Alley, not so long ago you might take this tack: Divide the world into oppressed people and bad corporations; toxic waste sites and beautiful gardens; good chemicals and bad chemicals. Call this version the Purified Story, in which you assign every character the appropriate white or black hat, then force them to stick to their role throughout the rest of the tale. Because the white hat-black hat model no longer explains the world–spin doctors can put a white hat on anyone, for one thing–you need a new mode of story-telling, one that’s deft and fast, as technical as it is poetic, as sociological as it is funny. Call this the Emulsified Story.

Willie says the whole story has never been told once–too many plants, too many rivers to tell it all. Green comes close to being an Emulsified Story, but what comes closer are Willie Fontenot’s “toxic tours,” a road trip (such as the one we take the next day) around chemical plants on which Willie rolls out hydrology, photography, former Louisiana governor Edwin Edwards, and toxicology, among other topics. In the small absurdities you see how the area is saturated with hazard. We drive by a manicured recreation area for employees at BASF; Willie points out that it’s built next to a hazardous waste dump. While driving next to rows of large tanks whose corporate logos have been hidden under paint, David points to two narrow pipes running parallel to the road.

“What’s being transported in those pipes?” he asks.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Willie deadpans, “Baby formula. Distilled water.”

Because the plants required large pieces of real estate, the easiest corporate purchases were the fields of old plantations. Dunn spent $6,500 (from the Texas Filmmaker Production Fund) hiring a helicopter, a former Vietnam war pilot, and a freelance cameraman named Vance Holmes to shoot the weird proximities of this geography from the air. The footage takes the viewer along the banks of the Mississippi, over plantations and cane fields–and directly over the chemical plants themselves, an illegal and dangerous bit of movie-making that helps Green’s arguments by association. As it turns out, the palette of industrial toxic wastes is often popsicle-gorgeous, full of lemons, oranges, and limes. The bristling refineries are stacked with plumes of steam and filigreed with fire. For people who live around these plants, such shots are powerful. Normally you’d only see the edge of a complex, towering over you; from the air, you see its massive spread.

“This is evidence,” says J. Timmons Roberts, an environmental sociologist at Tulane. “It’s gut evidence. It’s filmmaker evidence. It might not be a sociologist’s evidence, though.”

After our afternoon jaunt, Dunn decides to stop in to see Amos Favorite, a legendary environmental activist in the region. He lives off Highway 61, in a small brick house with a carport and a Cadillac parked in the front yard next to a small vegetable garden. Amos’s son comes to the door. He tells Willie and Laura that Amos, who fought hard to have trucks carrying hazardous waste banned from Highway 61, isn’t the man they remembered. He’s lost a leg to diabetes and is heavily sedated. Laura leaves a video for him, then we head back to Baton Rouge. For the rest of the day, Laura is subdued. The emotional universe of the film, which has started to look like the universe of her life, feels emptier. “He’s like one of the best people I ever met, my whole life,” she says.

That night in the Iberville Parish public library in Plaquemines, six people show up. With so many empty seats in the large room, Green seems easy to abandon. After last night’s screening at the LSU campus, where nearly 200 people came, Dunn, Fontenot and Carroll are disappointed with the turnout. (Tomorrow in Gonzales, there will be 30 people, including a representative from Harris Deville, a public relations firm for the chemical industry.) These are the people for whom Green was made: activists, neighbors, workers in chemical plants, academics, students, interested folks. All of them howl when Dale Givons, head of the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, and Kevin Reilly, head of the Office of Economic Development, say that any abnormally high incidence of cancer in Louisiana is due to spicy food. They also smirk knowingly when Duke King, a worker at BASF, a German chemical company, compares company monitoring of toxic emissions with a traffic speeder turning himself in.

Green opens with Emily Dickson, a cancer survivor, telling how surgery scars have changed her life. Later in the movie, Don Lewis describes what vegetables he used to grow in his backyard garden–and how he stopped when the EPA discovered toxins in the soil. “Especially after we lost the child,” he adds, referring to his 16-year-old daughter, who died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Such stories provide an opening for others to tell theirs, too. After the Gonzales screening, a woman relates how she and her female friends counted up their miscarriages, a number they found frighteningly high; all of them lived near a plant or had fathers or spouses who worked in them.

But Green isn’t designed only to be an emotional experience; Dunn wants to use it as a political tool. After the disappointing turnout in Plaquemines she feels strongly that she should use the film to organize local groups. I had my doubts as to whether this movie could be really effective. As I see it, the film provides an opportunity for people to gather and vent. In this sense, Green works. But as an argument that Cancer Alley demands immediate attention, the film won’t be equally persuasive to all audiences. Dunn doesn’t seem to have taken this into account. Whenever scientists criticize Green’s lack of evidence, she takes it as proof that they’re corrupt; she never says she didn’t make Green for them, anyway.

Distribution is another obstacle. Besides taking the movie on the road, Dunn is trying out an innovative marketing model. After PBS’s documentary series, “P.O.V.,” rejected Green, she signed a distribution deal with an Austin-based Internet company whose own success is due largely to word-of-mouth. The concept, known as “viral marketing,” is one few filmmakers have tried, but Dunn hopes to make Green a self-sufficient entity, a product she can spend little time taking care of while she shoots other movies.

Finally, environmental politics in Louisiana pose still another obstacle to Green’s long-term viability. During the panel discussion following the LSU screening, Damu Smith, a Greenpeace activist, stands up to praise the film, inserting news about his recent activities into his comments. Two days later, Smith shows up at the screening in Gonzales and carefully lays out Greenpeace literature on a side table. (When I talked to Smith in Gonzales at the union hall, he praised Green, claiming it will be “very central” to “the indigenous resistance of the community.”) As Dunn explains to me, his enthusiasm is somewhat ironic. “I must have called him fifty times, and he never returned a phone call,” she says. “To him, I’m just a little white girl.”

Nor has the film received unanimous praise from environmentalists, some of whom must balance their goals with their need to appeal to both activists and plant managers. Says Jerry Speir, a professor of law at Tulane and coordinator of the annual Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, “I would caution my environmental friends about leaning too hard on the cancer issue.” Hanging all the activism on the cancer story, Speir says, draws out so much “statistical noise and interpretive shenanigans” that the discussion gets sidetracked.

Last December, Dunn screened Green in Washington, D.C., at the National Academy of Science, where she encountered an audience of scientists for the first time. The meeting was not a happy one. “I kinda lost my cool,” she admits. In a discussion after the movie, Dunn says that Roger Herdman, Director of the National Cancer Policy Board, criticized Green for lacking persuasive evidence. “Where’s the evidence? I’m a fucking filmmaker. He’s the epidemiologist,” Dunn says.

But stati
tical evidence pla
s an important role in public discussions. When I spoke with Herdman several weeks after the Green Tour, he spoke plainly about the resistance that Green might encounter. “Laura Dunn is a filmmaker, but she’s talking to scientists, and the scientists will say, don’t you have an obligation to make the point for causality as strongly as you can?” Anecdotes identify areas for investigation, he says, but given the low socioeconomic status in the river parishes, “you’ll be able to collect endless anecdotes about people who are sick in those communities.” Jerry Speir echoed this sentiment: “You can attempt to move the political process with that appeal to those personal stories. But you may or may not succeed. At this point it would seem we haven’t succeeded.”

Since 1998, there’s been an abundance of literature–particularly from spin doctors opposed to “junk science”–to the effect that “Cancer Alley” is a myth. In a 1997 paper published by The Journal of the Louisiana Medical Society, based on data collected by the Tumor Registry, the incidence of cancer was no higher in the river parishes than in other places in the United States. “In short,” wrote Michael Gough, director of science and risk studies at the libertarian Cato Institute, “there is no Cancer Alley.” When I called Dale Givons, the director of the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, he stood by this conclusion. “Cancer Alley is a myth,” he told me. “Any media about Cancer Alley should be based on science.” But Dr. Patricia Williams, who heads the Occupational Toxicology Outreach Program at LSU, would ask: Whose science do you mean?

The Tumor Registry and the Department of Environmental Quality are “packaging the data, so they’re misrepresenting the data that’s really there,” Williams says. The Tumor Registry runs mathematical models that study only populations of 10,000 or more, still much larger than populations along the river. In addition, the “regions” they studied aren’t parishes or health districts but largely gerrymandered, grouping small slices of industrial areas with large rural areas. Finally, the Registry doesn’t distinguish child from adult cancers. Currently Williams, along with a group opposed to white collar crime, is attempting to get a court order to force the Tumor Registry to release its raw data.

As Willie Fontenot points out, the story is far bigger than Green and can handle many more tellings. “It’s a thousand-pound gorilla,” he says. One night in a student dive near the LSU campus, we drink beer and listen to Willie tell stories. “Laura’s caught only a small number of people involved in the struggle. She’s only touched the surface,” he says.”It’s like we’re in the middle of this huge lake, and she’s just”–he dabs his finger at the tabletop, then again– “and there are these ripples. These are the ripples she’s making.” At five the next morning, I return to Texas from the city of the Red Stick, which is full of blooming azaleas and camellias. Laura Dunn had seven screenings to go and the 1000-pound gorilla of Louisiana environmental politics to wrestle to its knees.

The next time I see Laura, we’re back in Austin, the day after the South by Southwest Film Festival. The road trip has stripped off a layer of her youth, but it’s also energized her. It’s as if she had to go back to Louisiana to understand that she makes movies to bring people together. She also makes movies to connect with people who trust her, whom she can trust. After a screening at the University of New Orleans, a young woman showed Dunn lesions on her neck and told her that doctors regularly cut lesions from her back and stomach. The student lived at the Agriculture Street landfill project, a HUD and City of New Orleans-subsidized housing project for first-time home-buyers, where in 1992 the EPA found elevated levels of 150 toxic chemicals, including arsenic, mercury, and lead, and began a clean-up in 1998. Dunn filmed the site but wasn’t able to screen there—the group she filmed has since disbanded, broken and disillusioned.

“Then I came back, boom, I’m at South by Southwest, all these companies are giving me their cards, awards ceremonies—all this stuff seems meaningless,” she says. After the festival’s award ceremony last night, she felt especially lost. “I felt like I couldn’t reconcile that juxtaposition,” she says. “I’ve gone from one extreme to the next, and I’m in the middle, and I felt so unfocused.” When she woke up this morning, her sense of her activist self was stronger than it had ever been, so she wants to bring Green to the 14 sites in Texas where Title XI complaints have been made to the EPA. Her company, Two Birds Film, has received grants and donations to hire staff through the summer. The website has generated sales; they sold 50 videos on the tour and have 50 back-ordered, and her Yale venture, Subtext, is bringing in some money. The Green engine, though small, is moving forward, if only by the force of Laura Dunn’s will.

“I thought I was going to go to Louisiana and do the screening and go on with my life,” Laura Dunn says. “I talked about touring other communities, but it was just so draining, because I’d lost so much hope in humanity. But I got so much hope from all these activists. They’re not giving up. Who am I to give up?”

Michael Erard is an Austin writer who can be reached at [email protected]