In the Air

Holy Rosary Cemetery and Union Carbide Complex, Taft, Louisiana, 1998 by Richard Misrach

Getting to see from the inside how a documentary film is created has been an invaluable experience for me. In the past, from the perspective of a viewer, I had no idea about the extensive thought and planning that is put into every minute detail.

But that amount of work is necessary—it’s vital to making something that’s good, that stays true and authentic to the story and portrays it in a way that is meaningful and lasting.

As I’ve detailed in my previous posts, the situation on the Gulf Coast is dire. Countless vulnerable communities are being threatened by an encroaching petrochemical industry and a government unwilling to protect its citizens.

Cypress Tree, Alligator Bayou, 1998 by Richard Misrach

This is a beautiful, fragile region of our nation, a place that has witnessed firsthand some of the most tumultuous moments of United States history. And, too, it is often forgotten and exploited; its delicate ecosystem is on the verge of collapse. As climate change accelerates, the Gulf Coast is one of the first regions that’s being impacted—and it’s dramatic: Louisiana is losing approximately a football field of coastal wetlands every hour.

Remarkable people live here, too, struggling to lead normal lives as plants continue to spew toxic chemicals into their air and water. I’ve already detailed the tragedy of Mossville, Louisiana, a majority African American community founded by runaway slaves that’s disintegrating because of aggressive petrochemical industry expansion.

And then there’s Africatown, Alabama, and Reserve, Louisiana, and the East End in Houston, among many others.

The resilience of these communities is extraordinary, but the bigger picture can be very discouraging. Communities of color are being systematically targeted and exploited by a ravenous petrochemical industry and complicit governments, and precious little is being done about it.

This is where I believe there becomes an urgent need to tell these stories, to put faces to the facts and figures of the suffering, to broadcast the human beings that live in these communities.

For me, this is why my time this summer at Fiege Films has been so rewarding and engaging. In doing my (admittedly small) part as a Research Assistant here, I’ve been able to contribute to this overall mission, and hopefully help get a littler closer to bringing about justice for these communities.

The film, currently titled In the Air, is in the production phase. You can follow our social media for updates and more information, and you can donate to help offset production costs and make this project a reality.

Work with a Purpose

In my time so far this summer at Fiege Films, I’ve had the opportunity to really get a good sense of what working on a team is like. I’m instinctively independent, and I usually like to work on my own, so working here has definitely been a bit of an adjustment compared to how I usually get things done when I’m at school. 

Collaborating with a team on a creative project is something that’s relatively new to me, but I’m finding that it’s a really rewarding experience. Because it’s a team, we each have the opportunity to ask for input and get feedback. I think that having the immediate ability to get other people’s opinions on things makes the overall work stronger.

In terms of technical skills, I’ve learned a lot more about video editing than I thought I would. Working on a project in which I assembled choice segments from hours of interview footage, I was able to get frequent feedback on the artistic direction of the project, but also learned and developed a lot on the technical side. Using programs like Final Cut Pro X, Adobe Premiere, and Adobe Media Encoder day-to-day, I think I’ve gained a lot more technical skills that I’m eager to keep working on when I get back to school.

I’ve really been enjoying my time so far at Fiege Films, and the office environment reflects where I would want to work in the future. I like the balance between independence and collaboration, the fact that I’m given plenty of free reign and leeway on assignments, but there’s still always the opportunity to ask for clarification or for help if things aren’t working quite how they should.

In researching the Gulf Coast, I’ve also been able to develop my investigatory and analysis skills, which I’m sure will be handy when research papers start to roll in.

I’m learning different search strategies, and how to dig deeper if at first I can’t seem to find what I’m looking for. For example, in researching the petrochemical complex around Mossville, Louisiana, I was able to dig deep into the Calcasieu Parish tax records to find exactly how much of the surrounding land was owned by oil and chemical companies. And, after a little research, it shocked me.

This chart, put together by The Intercept, further elaborates on how research can illustrate a historic culture of exploitation:

I think this summer has been so rewarding because the purpose of all of this editing and research and development has been for something that I firmly believe in.

Even though doing research work can take a long time, it really doesn’t feel cumbersome or boring—I think it’s because of why I’m doing it. Because I get to be part of a team that’s passionate about fighting for social justice for threatened communities like Mossville, because I’m personally invested in the mission, this experience has been very rich and rewarding, and it’s been going by really fast.

For the future, I think this means that I’m on the right path, career-wise. I’m glad I’m studying film, because this internship has confirmed for me that it’s a great and effective way to tell stories that matter. And I think that’s why this summer has been so great for me, because I get to work creatively with a great team to help further a cause I care about. 

Using Art to Bring About Social Change

I’m a firm believer in the power of art to enact lasting social change. I think that artistic expression has the ability to move hearts and minds, to motivate people to go out and change things for the better. This is why I’m so excited to be working here at Fiege Films this summer, because I get to have a real and tangible impact on working to bring about social and environmental justice through the art that I’m helping to create.

In an increasingly polarized society, in which it’s becoming difficult to even have a calm conversation with people of different political viewpoints, I believe that that art is especially important. We’ve seen that simply spouting facts and figures about things can have little effect on changing people’s perspectives, but I think what’s so compelling and powerful about art is that it transcend these biases.

I think often about how to bridge these ideological gaps and about how I personally can reach out to people of disparate political persuasions and understand their perspectives, and I think art is a perfect way to do this.

Take, for example, this piece that Fiege Films put out for Greenpeace. Called “Born on the Island,” it’s part of the series “Postcards from Climate Change” that uses filmmakers to tell personal stories about people affected by the radical changes our planet is currently undergoing.  

Statistics and research can often be dehumanizing. They can make you forget about the real people that are experiencing them. But when you tell a story, when you put a face to a name, I think it makes things more powerful, and people are more apt to care.  

Our last feature film, “Above All Else,” is another great, practical example of doing this: telling a personal story about a polarizing, broad issue. 

It’s easy to hear about a story in the national news, and to be told to think one way or another about it, but when you get the chance to actually meet and spend time with people, to understand how they think and what’s important to them, and to empathize with their struggle, it becomes totally different.

Especially in this current political moment, we can get trapped in our own sociopolitical bubbles. It’s comfortable; we like to be around people and ideas that complement our own. But it’s not healthy. We need to be cognizant of other perspectives, to search out ideas that expose our own biases.

Art that is personal, uncomfortable, and compelling is more important now than ever. Well-told stories that transcend the usual narratives are essential to bringing about social change. By focusing on the marginalized, the overlooked, the forgotten, we as a society can make things better for everyone, and avoid the trap of being comfortably ignorant and complicit.

Urban Planning: Theory & Practice

One of my favorite classes so far at Brandeis has been UWS—a favorite that I’m definitely in the minority for. The University Writing Seminar is a required class that all Brandeis students have to take, and each class has a different theme that students write about. My freshman UWS was called “The Decay of the American City,” and was about exploring urban planning practices in America.

Even though I didn’t really volunteer to take the class, I ended up discovering a whole subject of study that I didn’t know existed. I’d never before given much thought to how urban landscapes are developed, or really investigated the underlying ideas about how we put together the spaces where we live.

This past semester, I took a different class that approached these same ideas from a more literary perspective. “The Novel and the City,” a comparative literature class, explored the development of both novels and cities over the past three centuries. Again, I got to study how cities and societies are formed, and the social concepts that dominate how we construct our physical and social environments.

These two classes—my two favorites so far—have been excellent precursors for my current internship. For my internship this summer, I’ve been spending a lot of time researching urban spaces on the Gulf Coast, specifically in Southeast Texas and South Louisiana, and putting these ideas into practice. From my time at Brandeis, I’m now able to more critically investigate communities, to look at how they’re put together and how people live in them.

The Gulf Coast hosts both people and petrochemical plants, and often they’re uncomfortably situated in close proximity to one another. For example, in the Meadowbrook/Allandale neighborhood of Houston, Texas, there’s Cesar Chavez High School, which is located less than a quarter-mile away from a Texas Petrochemicals refinery, a Goodyear plant, and an Exxon-Mobil chemical facility.  The dire situation is detailed in this excellent Texas Observer article, which says that “a major accident at any of the three plants, by the industry’s own estimates, would injure or kill many Chavez students.”

Looking at this physical space from a critical perspective, we have to ask tough questions about it. For instance, why was this high school built so close to a refinery? Might it have to do with the respective racial and income make-ups of the neighborhood?

When we look at these two maps below, sourced from 2010 Census data for Meadowbrook/Allandale, the situation becomes more distressing.

Meadowbrook/Allandale, and its adjacent neighborhoods, like Manchester and Harrisburg, are living examples of the disparities in how our society treats both the poor and minorities. They’re why films like In the Air need to be made, because any society that treats its citizens so poorly needs to be called out.

My time spent at Brandeis, too, has helped me with my internship in that I got to learn about the subject of urban planning in theory and now I get to see it in practice. I’m excited to help tell the stories of these marginalized communities and to help fight for justice to be done.

Working for Environmental Justice at Fiege Films

This summer, I’m working at Fiege Films in Austin, Texas. It’s a small independent film company that I’m really glad to be a part of.

John Fiege, the founder of Fiege Films, is an environmentalist and documentary filmmaker. His past work includes the films Mississippi Chicken, an examination of undocumented workers in the poultry industry in Mississippi, and Above All Else, the story of a last-ditch attempt to stop the Keystone XL pipeline expansion in East Texas.

John has many shorter pieces too. This short film, Torrent on the Blanco, chronicles the devastating flooding that occurred in Wimberley, Texas in 2015:

The environment is a key focus at Fiege Films, and it’s especially important in the current moment, with environmental catastrophes like climate change feeling ever more acute, and a political administration unwilling to do anything to stop it. It’s paramount that people advocate for our habitat. 

Currently, I’m helping out with pre-production on In the Air, an experimental, feature-length film about environmental devastation on the Gulf Coast, told from the perspectives of local artists, such as poets and dancers.

We’re focusing particularly on a part of the country called “Cancer Alley,” a stretch of land along the Mississippi host to over 100 petrochemical complexes and a disproportionate amount of illness.

It’s a depressing situation, but also a great opportunity to speak out about this great injustice. I believe that environmental justice is social justice, and that by fighting for better air and water conditions for the residents of this region that have been traditionally mistreated, I’m helping to further the cause of social justice. When we protect our environment, we protect the people living there, too. That’s why telling this story is so important. 

Here’s an excerpt from the work sample for In the Air. It was shot in Baytown, Texas, and features a piece of poetry from Baytown native Ebony Stewart:

Right now, there’s a lot of work to be done for the film, and it’s pretty busy here in the office—but also really exciting. Coming off a successful Kickstarter in April, we’ve raised enough funds to start production, and for me that means researching locations, creating shooting schedules, and coordinating with artists, among many other tasks.

My hope for this time is that I can best facilitate the creative vision for the film, to help the story of a very marginalized and exploited part of the country get told. Making a film takes a ton of work, but in this case, with such dire subject matter, it’s self-evident how important it is. I’m very grateful to the WOW program for making it possible for me to work for social justice this summer. It’s awesome that I get to spend my time doing something so meaningful and important.