Inventing Tomorrow/Laura Nix

What’s it like to be fifteen years old and live in a world that’s so environmentally out of whack that it threatens human life? Against the backdrop of the 2017 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, filmmaker Laura Nix follows six teens from India, Indonesia, Hawaii, and Mexico who are finding solutions to environmental problems threatening their generation. Earth on Screen speaks with Nix and Sahithi Pingali, a brilliant young woman from Bangalore, India, who epitomizes the dedicated pragmatism that will be necessary to restoring balance to our earth. Click here to find out more about the film.  Availability: Opens New York City, August 31, IFC Center.  Thanks to Layla Hancock-Piper, Cinetic Media, for arranging this interview.

 

Sahithi Pingali in Inventure Academy lab; Bangalore, India. After the lake behind Sahithi's school caught fire twice, she invented a water-testing system, then crowd-sourced it online. Photo credit: IQ190 Productions LLC.

Sahithi Pingali in Inventure Academy lab; Bangalore, India. After the lake behind Sahithi’s school caught fire twice, she invented a water-testing system, then crowd-sourced it online. Photo credit: IQ190 Productions LLC.

EOS: At one time Bangalore was described as the land of ten thousand lakes. Now it’s known as the Silicon Valley of India. What environmental impact did this development have on Bangalore?

SP: There’s no river near Bangalore, so when the city was founded, they built lakes to provide for people’s water needs. The lakes were connected by channels. When it rained, the uppermost lake would overflow and fill all the others.

Suddenly all these IT companies moved to Bangalore. The city grew really quickly, without accompanying infrastructure, such as sewage treatment plants.The channels connecting the lakes were filled with debris to make them land again, cutting off the lakes from each other. There were a lot of people generating raw sewage, which went right into the lakes. With no channels to distribute freshwater, the lakes became cesspools.

EOS: Laura, you shot some heartbreaking footage in Bangalore.

LN: Oftentimes with environmental issues you can’t see the problem, so people have a hard time taking them seriously. Bangalore was the opposite.  It was visually extraordinary. Before we went we looked at stock footage and news reports, but they couldn’t prepare me for what it was like. The thing you don’t get from the footage is the smell. When you get out of the car you’re confronted with this stench as the sewage blows over the roadway and hits the cars. We got covered in it while we were filming. There’s one shot in particular where you can see the foam hitting the camera. [The foam is created by phosphates in the untreated sewage.]

 

EOS: The film gave me the impression that kids in developing countries are more connected to environmental issues than kids in the U.S. are.

SP: In India the awareness is high because when you step out of your house there’s no way to avoid it. Yet some people do manage to avoid it. They drive by the lakes every day with their windows up and AC on. They don’t get the smell, they don’t see the foam. The thing is, I was one of those people for a very long time. I only started asking questions when I was fifteen. It’s one thing to know the problem is there and another to be concerned about it and then quite another to take action on that concern. It’s the difference between avoiding it and approaching it. I think that in developing countries you do get more people who are concerned simply because they’re aware, but I don’t know if the ratio of people who know and the people who act is actually any better.

EOS: Laura, you worked with kids from Hawaii and Mexico and Indonesia. What did you find there?

LN: When we were casting the film, I interviewed over a hundred kids from all over the world. We did a data dive, looking at how many environmental projects were coming from each country. In many places, 50 to 70 percent of the projects had an environmental focus. In the States it was maybe 10 to 15 percent.

Jared Goodwin; Hilo, Hawaii. Jared devised a system for analyzing the spread of arsenic in the soil. Photo credit: IQ190 Productions LLC.

Jared Goodwin; Hilo, Hawaii. Jared devised a system for analyzing the spread of arsenic in the soil of his hometown. Photo credit: IQ190 Productions LLC.

It makes sense to me that students living in the developing world are coming up with solutions to environmental problems, because the problems are right in front of their faces. But in fact there are many communities in the U.S. facing ecological crises, environmental justice issues related to pollution or industrial contamination. Corporations are getting away with polluting these communities because the people who live there are underrepresented politically and financially, but they’re very much aware, and they’re taking action. We can look at front-line communities as a model of how we must respond.

EOS: Sahithi, your science fair project had two aspects. First you collected and tested water samples from the lakes, then you crowd-sourced the data through an app and website. What do you want to achieve with this project?

SP: At school I led a group of students to study the foaming lake right behind our school.  We interviewed the people who live there and found that they grow vegetables with that polluted lake water. Others had to close down their shops, others lost their livelihoods. How could I have been able to drive past this for so long and not see how much was happening?

When we brought the stinking water samples to school to test them in our lab, I started seeing that we were connecting to the lakes. We were seeing the water with our own eyes and handling it ourselves. Now I want this to be part of our school curriculum, where every kid goes out once a week and gets a lake sample.  It makes a big difference when you engage and do it yourself.

I started sharing the data through crowd sourcing to get everyone to see what was going on. When you do that, it’s important to make the data very visual so people don’t have to look at numbers. On my website I have color-coded maps saying whether the water is safe enough to drink or take a bath or water your vegetables. Now people can look at color-coded maps all across the world and see how their lakes are changing over time, what local actions people are taking. We’re building a community so that it’s no longer just one person going and getting a water sample.

 

EOS: Laura, I was under the impression that only judges and competitors are allowed to attend the judging session at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. How did you manage to get in?

LN: We talked to the Society for Science and the Public for about a year to get permission to film the judging. They’d never let cameras in the judging process before, and it took a very long time to convince them of the value of that. I felt it was really important to show because that’s when you see the students communicating their science projects in a very quick way to someone who knows about it. I think that’s the greatest value in participating in the science competition, because it forces students to become science communicators. They must explain their research in a way that’s compelling, that involves storytelling, not just data analysis.

 Shofi Latifa Nuha Anfaresi & Intan Utami Putri - Bangka Sea, Indonesia. The girls invented a filter that local residents can use to remove the tin from their water, which is contaminated by local mining concerns. In this picture, the girls are speaking with representatives of the largest mining corporation in Indonia, which has agreed to do further research on the girls' invention. Photo credit: IQ190 Productions LLC.

Shofi Latifa Nuha Anfaresi & Intan Utami Putri; Bangka Sea, Indonesia. The girls invented a filter that local residents can use to remove tin from their water, which is contaminated by local mining concerns. In this picture, the girls are speaking with representatives of the largest mining corporation in Indonesia, which has agreed to do further research on the girls’ invention. Photo credit: IQ190 Productions LLC.

There’s a chasm in our culture right now between the general public and science. The scientific community can get better at communicating what the work is, how it’s done, and what value it has. But I think the general public also has a sense that it’s too hard for them to understand. I was very intimidated when I started to make this film because I don’t come from a science background. I ultimately realized that was helpful because I could stand in as a proxy for the audience: if I could understand it, the audience could understand it.

EOS: Sahithi, as a scientist yourself, how important is it to communicate what you’re doing?

SP: A lot of scientists are proud of the complexity of what they’re doing. They lose sight of the fact that it’s valuable not because it’s complex but because of what it can do. And they can’t make an impact unless the people who are helping them understand what’s going on. Solutions are made in the lab by scientists, but they’re brought into the world by businessmen, people in the humanities, salespeople, storytellers. So much more goes into bringing science into the real world.

Even the science aspect can’t be done alone. There’s a reason why solutions of scale are deployed by big companies. Individuals are limited. If I go on trying to push my project using only my own time and my own abilities, it’s not going to be nearly as impactful as if I brought in another five or ten people to work on it and make it a more robust system. I think the image of the lone scientist in the lab is a bad stereotype, because it limits what you can do with the technology you have.

L - R: Jose Manuel Elizade Esparaza, Jesus Alfonso Martinez Aranda & Fernando Miguel Sanchez Villalobos; Monterrey, Mexico. To combat life-threatening air pollution in Monterrey, they invented a photocatalytic paint that would convert carbon dioxide into water-soluble chemicals capable of nourishing the local plant life. Photo credit: IQ190 Productions LLC.

L – R: Jose Manuel Elizade Esparaza, Jesus Alfonso Martinez Aranda & Fernando Miguel Sanchez Villalobos; Monterrey, Mexico. To combat life-threatening air pollution in Monterrey, they invented a photocatalytic paint that would convert carbon dioxide into water-soluble chemicals capable of nourishing the local plant life. Photo credit: IQ190 Productions LLC.

I don’t know where people got the idea that science should be done solo. If you look at the very nature of scientific research, you measure a paper’s success by how many other people were able to do work based on it. Science is by nature very collaborative, because nobody solves these huge complex problems alone. Nobody does it alone in the real world of science—it’s more in the depictions that it becomes a solo thing. In high school and college you do all your assignments alone. Making it more collaborative from the beginning might help, but so would depicting it the way it actually works, with a lot of people coming together.

EOS: Laura, what makes film such an incredibly powerful medium for communicating science?

LN: A lot of feature films focus on the biopic of an extraordinary person doing an extraordinary project. They gloss over the details of the science because they’re focused on the hero’s journey. I was really interested in showing the process of science. When you do science, you fail a lot. You do some research and you stop and start and don’t always get the results that you want, but you keep going. Watching young people tackle that in a very pure way was really inspiring, because they have a vision about what they’re doing and a clarity of purpose about the why of what they’re doing. The why is something that gets left out a lot when we depict science.

The why is also where you can find the emotion in the story. An environmental film focusing on a science fair seemed potentially very dry, so for me the goal was to bring emotion to the story and show how this was very personal, this was young people fighting to save their homes. Each of the students I chose for the film was very connected to the why of that they do. The challenge for me as a filmmaker was how to make this an emotional story and also something that was really compelling to watch.

I went about that by maintaining a kind of first-person perspective so that you get a sense of what it would be like to be fifteen years old and facing this huge environmental crisis. I wanted the film to communicate the uniqueness of that perspective, because we can learn something from it. These kids automatically understand that they have to do something. They’ve taken the responsibility of committing to action. The other thing that really struck me is the fact that they don’t think about it politically. They think, ‘Here’s a problem that we have to fix.’ Our generation got stuck in this political spin cycle where we can’t move forward because we’re blocked by financial and economic and political issues, but these kids don’t think about that at all. That’s the way we should be approaching it. I wanted to put that framing out into the world as a way for us to be able to learn from them so that they can become our role models as we look forward.

 

EOS: So, Sahithi, what is it like to be a teenager facing this huge environmental crisis?

SP: Every year we put on a play in school.The scriptwriters base the play on the students’ attitudes. Last year our play was about the environment. The last line was “If not us, who? If not now, when?” I think it’s as simple as that. We can’t do nothing. We can’t wait, because it’s only going to get worse. But I think there’s also the fact that it can get better. This is something people don’t appreciate enough. Right now, at this point in time, we have the technology to not just slow down climate change or stop it but actually potentially reverse it. It would be hard, things would have to be implemented at huge scale, but we could. It’s not impossible. It’s not even a lack of abilities. It’s something we can do, it’s just that it’s not happening. Young people who are really engaged in this realize the potential is there. We don’t know if we’ll ever reach it, but we can’t not work towards it. We can’t go back and undo what’s been done, so we just have to do what we can now. It’s important to keep in mind that it can be done. It’s not beyond possibility to actually take things back.

Copyright © Earth on Screen 2018

Company Town/Natalie Kottke-Masocco

 

The Koch Brothers are poisoning the tiny town of Crossett, Arkansas. On the outskirts of this largely African-American hamlet, Penn Road lies just across the runoff ditch from the Georgia-Pacific paper and chemical plant. Eleven of the fifteen families who live on Penn Road have lost someone to cancer. Tests conducted on Crossett’s air, land, and water reveal harmful chemicals such as benzene, hydrogen sulfide, and formaldehyde, linked to the plant. For the past four years, the residents of Crossett have been fighting back against Koch Industries, Georgia-Pacific’s owner. Despite testimony from regional scientists and experts on federal environmental law, Crossett’s efforts to force the EPA and state agencies to enforce state regulations regarding emissions and dumping of toxic waste have been largely unsuccessful. Filmmakers Natalie Kottke-Masocco and Erica Sardarian have recorded the town’s battle in Company Town, a documentary that is also a tool for social justice. To take action on a petition submitted by the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic in support of the citizens of Crossett, click here. •Availability: Opens September 8, New York City, Cinema Village. Thanks to Kelly Hargraves, First Run Features, for arranging this interview.

A victim of Georgia-Pacific’s pollution in Crossett, Arkansas. Photo by Nikolaus Czarnecki.

A victim of Georgia-Pacific’s pollution in Crossett, Arkansas. Photo by Nikolaus Czarnecki.

DT: Can you give us an overall picture of what’s happening in Crossett, Arkansas.

NKM: Crossett, Arkansas, is a tiny rural Southern town that’s ruled by this company called Georgia-Pacific. Georgia-Pacific is a paper mill and chemical plant owned by the Koch Brothers. This company has extreme power, and it’s the true lifeblood of the town. The mission of our story is, What do you do when the only employer in town is also poisoning you? The people in this town work for the mill, their grandfathers worked for the mill, it’s generational. It’s part of the fabric of their everyday life. It’s their bread and butter. It’s their paycheck. People either work there or have a child there, and they’ve given their entire lives to the company.

 

Only there’s egregious pollution in this small town by Georgia-Pacific. There’s door-to-door cancer. On one street alone, eleven out of fifteen homes experienced a death from cancer. Their water is polluted, their air is polluted—they’re wracked by the pollution at Georgia-Pacific. We set out to tell the story of what that situation looks like, as well as the blatant disregard by the local government and the Environmental Protection Agency, the lack of oversight, and the total dismissiveness of the EPA. It’s a story that’s very complex.

 

DT: The Reverend David Bouie, the local pastor, is organizing the town to fight back. Had they already started to organize when you entered the picture?

Organizing in Crossett. Photo by Nicolaus Czarnecki.

Organizing in Crossett. Photo by Nicolaus Czarnecki.

NKM: When I first came in, the town was not organized. It all started in 2011, when I was working on a documentary called Koch Brothers Exposed directed by Robert Greenwald. I was looking at the Koch Brothers’ environmental catastrophes across the country, and I produced a small segment on Crossett and literally just stumbled upon this town. I called Pastor Bouie, who is our main subject in the film, and he said, “I won’t speak with you unless you come here in person.” Two days later I flew there and we knocked on doors together and I met with him, I met his neighbors, I met the community, and it blossomed from there.

I spent six years covering the story, four years investigating the cancer cases and documenting the investigation into the EPA, as well as the people taking action in this town. When I saw something of the pollution they face and spoke with neighbors and spent so much time with Pastor Bouie, I knew there was a bigger story there that really deserved to be told.

We were documenting the investigation of Georgia-Pacific and the EPA as it was unfolding over four or five years, so we were embedded with the EPA and embedded with the citizens, and we got a whistleblower to come forward, Dickie Guice, who’s incredibly brave and spoke out in the New Yorker last fall about the egregious pollution dumping behind people’s homes. It’s really quite unbelievable, to the point where government officials are on the land of a worker who has invoices showing that Georgia-Pacific dumped waste on his private land even though it’s not designated landfill by the EPA.  The federal EPA officials are on his land holding the contamination in their hands and saying, “I don’t know what to do with this.” This blatant disregard for citizens’ lives is egregious, and it highlights what we’re seeing today in the Trump administration, with Scott Pruitt heading the EPA.

Holding solid toxic waste. Photo by Nicolaus Czarnecki.

Holding solid toxic waste. Photo by Nicolaus Czarnecki.

DT: The EPA under Pruitt is taking a direction none of us want, but I was shocked by the EPA’s behavior in your film, which took place before Trump came in.

NKM: Exactly. It’s now clearly  obvious to the public that Scott Pruitt is literally tied to the Koch Brothers. The New York Times revealed only days after he was appointed that he had direct ties to the Koch Brothers to benefit his pocket and the Koch Brothers’ plants. As a former attorney general, Scott Pruitt sued the EPA fourteen times. He is a blatant anti-environmentalist, and this is the man who is now protecting public health, which is totally outrageous.

Our film highlights what was happening on a local level across the nation before Pruitt. You have these local administrators who are supposed to protect the people—in this case, the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality—and you see that the citizens have to do everything in their power to bang on their door and they’re still not listening. The fact that the EPA is looking the other way is not new. As you see in the film, they’re laughing and smirking. At the meeting where the citizens are giving testimony after testimony, the EPA and the Department of Health and the Department of Water just blatantly one after the next disregard the findings of independent scientists, which include benzene in the water along with sixty other chemicals, and an outrageous amount of hydrogen sulfide in the air. Georgia-Pacific has had numerous violations this year alone of hydrogen sulfide, which causes severe headaches, nausea, stomach pain.

You see these meetings where the local and federal officials are disregarding blatant evidence presented by the community and by independent scientists, but you also see an example of the resistance movement happening today: people on a grassroots level like we’re seeing in town halls across the country right now are fighting back because the government isn’t protecting them. This has been a longtime problem, before Scott Pruitt, but it’s exacerbated now with Pruitt and the Trump administration.

 

DT: While documenting the investigation of the EPA and the local government agencies, did you find that they were in the Koch Brothers’ pockets, the same way the Times discovered the emails between the Koch Brothers and Pruitt?

NKM: Yes. It’s in the film, and this is incredibly important to note. In the film, the deputy of EPA Region 6, Sam Coleman, says to Pastor Bouie in a private phone conversation that is revealed in the film, “Mr. Bouie, you were correct. The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality and the EPA are in bed with Georgia-Pacific and the Koch Brothers.” He said that. They’re doing everything they can to get away from this, and they’re on the run. We have them in violation. Sam Coleman from the EPA admits that Georgia-Pacific is in violation, and he admits that they’re in bed with the local state agencies and looking the other way. It’s so blatant.

 

DT: What recourse do the citizens of Crossett have now?

Pollution flowing out of the Koch Brothers’ Georgia-Pacific plant in Crossett, Arkansas. Photo by Nicolaus Czarnecki.

Pollution flowing out of the Koch Brothers’ Georgia-Pacific plant in Crossett, Arkansas. Photo by Nicolaus Czarnecki.

NKM: This is total environmental injustice along with total economic injustice, and it’s happening all across the country. Crossett represents small towns like Hinkley, California, Love Canal, and Flint, Michigan. These communities are being bullied by big business, and they’re taking the power in their hands and speaking out. You see the citizens of Crossett organizing in the film; Pastor Bouie has created the Crossett Concerned Citizens for Environmental Justice. The town is galvanized, they are organized, and we are using this film as a tool for social action.

This isn’t just a film: it’s an official action campaign. Tulane Environmental Law Clinic has filed a civil rights petition against the EPA for discrimination based on the fact that Crossett is predominantly an African-American community that is disproportionately polluted by Georgia-Pacific. There is a complaint at the civil rights desk at the federal EPA in Washington, D.C., right now, and they have accepted the investigation. What a citizen can do at this moment is actually call the desk to put pressure on the EPA.

 

DT: Whom should people call, and what’s the number?

NKM: You can take action by calling Tanya Lawrence. She’s acting director of the EPA office of civil rights. The number is 202-564-2916.

DT: Is this ongoing, or is there a time limit on when Ms. Lawrence will accept phone calls?

NKM: It’s ongoing. I’m checking in on it weekly, but at the moment it’s ongoing. It will be voice mail as well, so I hope people don’t get deterred by that. They’re getting all of the calls and they’re getting all of the voice mails, and the more people who leave messages and the more calls they get, the more powerful the pressure will be on them to go to Crossett and investigate it. We were in the middle of the investigation as we shot the film, and we’re rolling out the film right now with the theatrical release. We’ll update the website if there are going to be any changes to the actual action, but right now the most powerful tool and the most powerful way a person can step up for Crossett is by making these phone calls and putting pressure on the EPA.

 

DT: How are you using the film as a tool for promoting social change? Where are you screening it? How do people access it? Do you have a presence on social media?

NKM: We’re having our theatrical premiere in New York, September 8, for one week at Cinema Village Theater in Greenwich Village. We also have incredibly exciting news that the New York attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, is speaking opening night at 8:00 p.m. It will be incredible to have him there, and we are really honored.

DT: Do you have a Facebook page?

NKM: You can reach us on Facebook at Company Town Film. The people in Crossett are incredibly brave for stepping forward, and we want the people who watch this film to feel inspired to act and to help clean up Crossett, as this represents communities across the country that are polluted by big business.

 

DT: Is the film going to be available online? How can people who don’t live in New York see it?

NKM: We’re doing a theatrical release first in New York, then in L.A., then in D.C., and it will eventually be available online. That will be announced. People can go to our website companytownfilm.com  and subscribe. We send out a monthly or bimonthly newsletter, and we’ll have updates on where the film is showing across the country and when it will be available online. We encourage people to visit the website because our action is also up there, so people can sign up for the newsletter, how to watch the film, and also how to take action to clean up Crossett.

 

DT: Is there anything you want to add?

NKM: This story is incredibly powerful, and these people are incredibly brave. We really want the film to be a tool to put pressure on the EPA for stricter regulations in Crossett. I urge people to take action and get involved and engage with us on social media so we can make a big impact to clean up the town.

 

DT: Has anyone started a national movement to connect the Love Canal, Flint, Michigan, and Crossett, Arkansas dots? Is anyone aggregating them in a lawsuit or some kind of national movement?

NKM: We highlight in the film that we look at Crossett as part of a movement and an example of towns across the country polluted by big business. As far as an aggregated movement online…that’s a great idea! In the film and on our website and in all of our materials we’re very mindful of including those other examples as cases of what’s happening across the country and connecting them back to Crossett because they’re eerily similar. Flint, Michigan, exploded back in 2015, and it was just like in Crossett—the EPA on the ground and local state officials turning the other way.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017