“Environmental injustice is about [the state] creating sacrifice zones where we place everything which no one else wants,” Mustafa Ali, the former head of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) environmental justice program, says. “The justification is always an economic one, that it makes sense to build chemical plants on so-called cheap lands where poor people and people of color live, but which are only cheap because all the wealth and economic opportunities have been stripped out. The people who live in these areas are unseen, unheard and undervalued.”
In the outstanding 2019 documentary, Mossville: When A Great Tree Falls, director Alexander John Glustrom gives the former residents of their hamlet in the Calcasieu Parish near Lake Charles, Louisiana, a compelling platform to tell their story of how a South African petrochemical corporation eradicated the history of a town first settled in the 18th century. Named after Henry Moss, a former slaveowner, Mossville, at its height of its community presence, housed 800 families. The property of Mossville was transferred to 57 freed slaves after the Civil War ended and the town thrived.
The Utah Film Center will present a livestream screening of Mossville Tuesday, May 19, at 7 p.m., with a talkback following the presentation of the 76-minute award-winning documentary. For more details about the livestream link, see the Utah Film Center’s website.
After a solid run at various film festivals with at least 13 awards to its credit, the documentary was slated for wider distribution in selected U.S. cities earlier this spring but the pandemic canceled those plans. The film is now on a virtual theatrical tour.
Glustrom succeeds in presenting with the utmost clarity a disheartening portrait of the dismantling of a town so closely intertwined that the streets were named for the descendants of the families, which had settled in this hamlet. Part of the film’s title comes from the similarly labeled Maya Angelou poem. Glustrom adds his own poetic depth in his visuals that resonate with Angelou’s elegiac tone, accompanied by the exceptional music of Carlos José Alvarez, which includes violin, cello and vocalist Lauren Evans.
At the heart of the film are the town’s last remaining residents, including the Fisher family members and, most significantly, Stacey Ryan, who is in his late 40s, and is struggling to stay in his mobile home. This last vestige is separated only by a fence from the construction of a massive petrochemical operations plant being mounted by SASOL, which is based in South Africa. Ryan is fully aware of the inevitable outcome but he also is committed to preserving the legacy of his hometown to the last possible moment.
Despite the precarious circumstances of trying to stave off the final bit of demolition, Ryan is resourceful against significant inconveniences. Cut off from all basic utilities including electricity, gas and sewage, he has created substitute sources. However, as with many others who have lived in an area that already was surrounded by more than a dozen petrochemical plants, Ryan is experiencing serious health problems, including skin rashes and infections and neuropathy in his feet.
Hoping to take his five-year-old son (who is staying with other family members) eventually to Helotes, Texas (touted as “the best small town to raise kids in Texas” by Bloomberg Business), Ryan knows his time might be limited. Many of his family members died early of cancer and other illnesses – most in their late fifties and early sixties but some as young as 37. Their deaths unquestionably were linked to originating from contaminated resources due to the presence of the petrochemical plants.
Ryan exemplifies the wholeness of the problem and the struggles involved. These are commonly reflected in other crises around the country, including Flint, Michigan where the city’s water supply was contaminated with dangerous levels of lead and other substances. Others include Pompton Hills, New Jersey, where the groundwater was contaminated from toxic chemicals of a now-closed DuPont munitions plant and the federal government’s persistent refusal to honor the land and territorial integrity of Native Americans while making way for oil pipelines, mining or other forms of industrial development.
Glustrom also connects Mossville to Secunda in South Africa, where SASOL had established an equally massive petrochemical complex in the heart of a community during the era of apartheid. Meanwhile, SASOL (the acronym stands for South Africa Synthetic Oil Liquid) has rebranded a South African town as Sasolburg, which accommodates many workers and even features Sasol burgers. The film amplifies the disturbing resemblance between what became of Secunda and what Mossville likely will be transformed into by SASOL’s presence.
There are moments when Ryan is ignored or intimidated by SASOL security and construction workers. At one point, the security demands that filming of a scene be stopped. Glustrom, in prepared statements and interviews, says that SASOL refused any requests to answer questions or offer its side of the story. The resilience to complete this project and screen the film certainly strengthens Mossville’s impact and documentary value.
The background of the fight for Mossville frames Glustrom’s focus to humanize the events in the stories of Ryan and the Fisher family members. The fight to preserve Mossville started well before the current presidential administration’s decision to strip the EPA of its effective powers. Former Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal welcomed SASOL’s commitment, which included $14 billion of foreign direct investment, the largest ever made to the Gulf Coast state. Unfortunately, the EPA’s southern district offices in Dallas also set up Mossville as the model for community buyout programs to clear the way for industrial development.
The EPA ignored requests from the community group Mossville Environmental Action Now (MEAN) to bring forward the testimony of environmental justice advocates. Meanwhile SASOL curried the favor of Jindal and other governmental officials to exercise eminent domain and rezone the area for heavy truck traffic, disrupting forever previously quiet neighborhood streets. A voluntary property purchase program was established with zero input from Mossville residents. As seen in the film, the buyouts were insufficient, especially as housing prices were rising in areas outside of Mossville, thereby limiting options for families to relocate. Ryan, the last person to take a settlement offer, ended up using most of the funds to cover his mounting medical bills.
The film’s poetic moments soothe some of the bleakest impacts of mourning presented in Mossville. In one scene, Ryan talks about looking at the nighttime array of lights emanating from the plants in a different perspective, imagining how they might represent the city of the future. The sense of mourning is evident in the emotional responses of both Ryan and the Fisher family members. Alvarez’s music, rendered in Evans’ spiritual vocals, etches in the memories of the history of slavery and the bittersweet promise of emancipation that made the hamlet of Mossville possible. Mossville stands out as an eminent piece in the canon of environmental justice filmmaking.
OTHER UTAH FILM CENTER NEWS
The Utah Film Center is one of 96 recipients of The Academy Foundation of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ 2020 FilmCraft and FilmWatch grants. The grant is expected to support the forthcoming Damn These Heels Queer Film Festival.
The center’s Cinema on Demand program continues with six new releases, making 12 titles now available for rent, at prices starting at $0.99. The program allows the center to collaborate with independent film distributors to present new releases for streaming. Family friendly selections also are available in the Tumbleweeds Film Festival category. The rental revenue accrued is split between the respective film distributor and the Utah Film Center. Among the most recent features added is Spaceship Earth, a documentary that premiered at Sundance in January. Directed by Matt Wolf, the film brings the memories of the Biosphere 2 experiment from nearly 30 years ago into an engrossing, light-hearted yet comprehensively informed portrait. Read more about the film from The Utah Review’s Sundance 2020 coverage.