Jenah and Journey from KEPW’s Youth Radio Project interviewed the directors of an important new documentary. The People Vs. Agent Orange was released just this week. The film follows two women, one in Vietnam and one in Oregon, whose families were poisoned by chemicals. The movie tells about their fight over two generations to bring to justice the people who poisoned them.
Kate Taverna and Alan Adelson were interviewed on KEPW’s Youth Radio Project March 13. Alan Adelson.
Alan Adelson: It’s wonderful to be able to speak to a younger generation, which I’m really concerned about because you are going to be the inheritors of the consequences of the toxins, the dangerous chemicals that are being used today in agriculture. The films features two heroic women. They’re both in their late seventies. One of them is Vietnamese French, and the other is American and they are both amazing crusaders who are trying to help stop the spreading of poisons through the agricultural industries, primarily the timber industry in the Pacific Northwest. But these same chemicals are being used in Florida being used in Ohio, being used around the country to try to enhance the output of farm lands and timber lands, even if that will mean that it is causing diseases for everyone who’s close by the use of these chemicals. These people are getting dosed with the chemicals because the chemicals are being sprayed from helicopters, and it’s spreads everywhere and drifts in the winds. And as you can see in our film, a guy who’s loading the herbicides into one of those helicopters is using his cell phone to make a secretive or clandestine videos expecting to be able to blow the whistle and tell the world what dangers are being spread so callously, out of a desire by corporations to make more money.
John Q. Murray: The film includes some startling admissions from a federal judge, appointed during the Great Society era by LBJ. Alan also interviewed Sen. Tom Daschle, one of the most powerful members of the United States Senate (2001-2003).
Alan Adelson: The Senate majority leader. He had fought for 10 years to get health coverage for the United States, military veterans who were made sick from their fighting in Vietnam and with really no prospect for fame or fortune, he took on this very, very difficult struggle. It took almost three years to get him to consent, to be interviewed for the film and in it, he makes a shocking declaration that there was a coverup of the Agent Orange damages that went to, as he puts it, “far higher levels of government than I would like to admit.” In other words, he was reluctant to make the accusation, but it probably went up just about to the White House.
John Q. Murray: This year, in May, a French court is set to announce a decision in the first case accepted on behalf of Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange. Journey and Jenah asked the filmmakers how their finished film would handle the late-breaking news.
Journey: Have you guys decided what the end was going to be?
Kate Taverna: That’s a brilliant question. How do you make a movie when you don’t have an ending? It’s very difficult. Have to just wait and we’re going to have to put up a title. On May 10th or 11th, we’ll find out if it goes one way or another or the other, in any case, no matter how it ends, if she wins, the other side will appeal. If she loses her lawyers will appeal. And if they’d postpone again, that could happen also.
Alan Adelson: But Journey, just to let you in on kind of the mechanics of how that’s happening, about a month ago, when it became clear that the decision was going to come down from the court a little over a month before our broadcast on PBS, the powers that be sent us instructions to prepare three different cards of information, one of which will be tagged on to the end of the film.
And we wrote them and our graphic artists put them in type only a week or so ago. And one of them talks about the global shock and attention that heralded the announcement that Madame Tran had won her case. And that she is the only individual to have held the chemical companies accountable in the long, almost half century, long history of controversy over these herbicides.
The other, the second possible card, said that the court ruled against Madame Tran, that she would not win the historic case that she’s been struggling for seven years to do. And that her lawyers said that they would appeal.
And the third possible card said that the court did not come to a decision after all, and that after seven years of delays, there will be more delays even.
Kate Taverna: Yeah, life is bigger than that. And anything could happen between now and May 10th.
Alan Adelson: When you’re working on something like this, you have to leave. No things are in a state of change. And change is great for documentary films, but there’s an expression. It’s a moving target and you have to try to keep up with it.
John Q. Murray: The Youth Radio Project reporters also got a scoop, when they learned something that even one of the co-directors didn’t know.
Jenah: Do you have a movie that you guys have directed and it’s your favorite, like your favorite movie that you directed?
Alan Adelson: The Ulysses movie.
Kate Taverna: After all this, after 10 years on this project? (laughing) The most fun one was about James Joyce.
Alan Adelson: James Joyce is a famous Irish writer and probably the most, one of the most famous novels in the history of literature which is called Ulysses.
Kate Taverna: And on the streets in Dublin there’s these little images of Leopold Bloom walking on the trail that he takes on the single day of the novel. But that film is basically about the six or seven women who made it possible for James Joyce’s book to be published, those women. Two women in the United States who were serializing the book and they got arrested. So I just thought the girls would like to hear about how women made it happen!
Alan Adelson: As you said, it was the most fun. There’s a there’s a lot of humor in it and creativity. We have actors, a script.
Kate Taverna: This film we just made has an incredible music score done by two very talented composers. And one of them was this Vietnamese woman who flew from Berkeley to New York, to Harlem in New York City to meet up with the other composer. And we had to buy her another seat in the plane to put her dan bao instrument, and her other xylophone made out of bamboo pieces. And she had these in the other seat. They were all very large. And on his website, his name is Blake Leyh, and we also had a five-one mix, like surround sound. So the soundbed of this film has to be I think one of my favorites. Lodz Ghetto also had a great sound but that was acoustic. This one is all digital.
Alan Adelson: Okay. But of taking the films in their entirety, Kate, do you, is this film your favorite?
Kate Taverna: I don’t know if I have a favorite. I see each one of them as a different kind of entity and achievement.
Journey: So first, I want to say you view your movies, like, as if they are your best friends, they have flaws and you see them all equally.
Kate Taverna: Yeah. That’s true. They are persons for me, that’s true. They’re alive. Yeah. Yeah. I like to revisit them and see them every once in a while. Like my friends. You’re right.
Alan Adelson: The folks in coastal Oregon, especially the community radio stations and the environmental activists, have taken such an amazing role or relationship on regarding our film. They are advocating for it. They are sending thousands of e-blasts to their lists telling people this is a film you really need to see. And amazingly, even one theater manager, the guy who runs the City Lights Theater in Florence, Oregon, all of the revenues that come from his share his showing our film will be kicked back to the in the community environmental rights groups to spend, to spread the word as best they can. It’s nice to see that people appreciate the film so much that they want to help other people to see it. That’s golden. For a filmmaker, that’s a thrill.
Jenah: Where could our listeners find the movie?
Kate Taverna: Go to our website, ThePeopleVsAgentOrange.com, and under the tab for screenings, there’s a list by state of all the theaters. You can go to the theater to get the ticket or buy it directly from the website.