“With the right to know comes the duty to inquire,” explained Dr. Sandra Steingraber, author of the book Living Downstream, and now, the main character in the book’s film adaptation.
Steingraber is an ecologist, author, poet and cancer survivor. Living Downstream is the documentary film adaptation of her critically acclaimed book by the same name. The book was published in 1997, but for the past five years Chanda Chevannes and her team at The People’s Picture Company in Toronto have been labouring to bring the book to life. “I was just out of high school when I first read Sandra’s book,” said Chevannes. “As I read the first few pages, I thought, “This is written so cinematically, someone will turn this book into a film’ […] But it took many years before I realized that I was that someone.”
Living Downstream uses thought-provoking footage, contrasting beautiful North American landscapes with harsh industrial wastelands and eerie, almost mechanical agricultural sites. The film follows Steingraber in her personal and professional endeavours to spread the word of her life’s work, combined with intimate vignettes of her lifelong struggle as a cancer survivor.
Living Downstream packs a punch both in what it tells the viewer and how. It addresses the topic of cancer and the environment as a multi-layered problem, involving many issues and many people. The film looks at agricultural water run-offs, tests on frogs and Beluga whales harmed by pesticide use, and tap water chock full of toxic chemicals. It stresses the harm that comes from chemical emissions that seep into our environment, and consequently, into our bodies. “[Chemicals] don’t disappear once they are released into the environment, they move from one medium to another, and eventually into our bodies,” said Chevannes. “There is no barrier between our environment and our bodies.”
The film conveys other messages as well, including the effect that a cancer diagnosis can have on a person, and the importance of looking at cancer as a human rights issue. It also attempts to communicate hope. “I was most focused on the message about the beauty of our world,” explained Chevannes. “Like in [Steingraber’s] writing, we wanted to encourage people to see why our environment is worth protecting.”
The film treats the issue of cancer and its link to the environment as an obvious human rights violation. It can be seen as a type of activism, but done in a non-confrontational way, Chevannes noted. “[Steingraber] has a very gentle style, and I wanted to reflect that style too.” In the film, Steingraber said, “My intent is not to scare people or alarm people. My intent is to enact this idea that knowledge is power, and the people have the right to know what’s going on with their environment and what might be effecting their health.”
Since the film’s release in March 2010, Chevannes has been working on outreach for the film. This work has included the creation of two educational DVDs for teachers and activists, written guides that help to accompany the DVD, a very new and interactive website as well as screenings across North America.
Though she admits the goals for this project are big, Chevannes ultimately wants “to affect the conversation around environmental health and synthetic chemicals. I hope it is doing that.”
Living Downstream screens Jan. 24 at Cinema Politica, room H-110, at 7 p.m. For more info, check out cinemapolitica.org