Indie Memphis and the University of Memphis' Department of Communications are teaming up again this year to bring the Southern Circuit Tour of Independent Filmmakers to Memphis. Presented annually by the Georgia nonprofit South Arts, the tour brings the work of Southern filmmakers to audiences throughout the country. For the 2014-2015 season, six documentary films will screen monthly at Studio on the Square and the new Hattiloo Theater in Overton Square. Films this year will include Yoruba Richen's The New Black, an exploration of the African-American community's struggle over gay rights, and Good Ol' Freda, director Kathy McCabe's portrait of the Beatles through the eyes of their fanclub president Freda Kelly, which was a big hit at last year's Indie Memphis Film Festival.
The first film in this year's screening series, My Toxic Backyard begins with a man showing home movies of his family. As figures appear on the screen, he recites when they died. In all, eight members of his family died from exotic cancers caused by chemical pollution. And it's not just his family, but a whole North Carolina community is affected. There are 50 cases of non-hodgkin's lymphoma clustered in one square mile. The culprit is a former copper plating plant run by the CTS corporation. From the late '50s to the 1980s, the plant provided jobs for the community. But when it was unceremoniously closed down, the owners simply dumped all of their excess chemicals on the site and padlocked the gate. Toxic solvents such as trichloroethylene have leached out of their containers and into the groundwater, exposing the rural residents who get their water from backyard wells to more than 4,000 times the legal limits of the toxic substances. As Tate MacQueen, a high school social studies teacher who has lost several members of his family, says, "No one knows how toxic the water is."
All of the members of the Rice family, who lived less than 300 feet from the former plant's perimeter, have brain cancer. Their youngest daughter had her first surgery when she was 19 years old. The Davises take filmmaker Katie Damien to a small spring on their property where you can see a thick goop oozing from the ground, and the chemical smells are said to be overwhelming.
The list of ailments goes on: stillbirths, compromised immune systems, constant migraines. In one scene, members of the community plead with an EPA "facilitator" to use Superfund money set aside by the government to clean up the site. But the working-class residents' pleas for help are either ignored by EPA stonewalling or crushed by the chemical corporation's vast legal resources. As one resident bluntly states in a meeting with a lawyer, "CTS should be branded with their crimes, but they'll always win, because they've got the money."
Director Damien's technique and form are strictly utilitarian. The afflicted residents speak for themselves, aided strictly by onscreen captions. But their stories are honest, effecting, and deeply important in this era of rampant corporate crime. My Toxic Backyard prompts you to asks the question, what could be in your backyard that you don't know about?
My Toxic Backyard screens on Wednesday, September 24th at 7 p.m. at Studio On The Square. Director Kate Damien will be on hand to answer questions from the audience.