Written by Alan Adelson, Co-Director of ‘The People vs. Agent Orange.

‘The People vs. Agent Orange’ has reached hundreds of thousands across the globe.

After 10 years in the making, my team and I decided to launch our investigative environmental documentary “The People vs. Agent Orange,” on virtual cinema platforms in the region where it takes place: coastal Oregon and Washington — where aerial spraying of the toxic herbicide has caused extensive cancers, birth defects and miscarriages. We were “bringing the film home to its roots.” To our delight, communities mobilized to receive it.

The response was inspiring. Residents in affected communities viewed the documentary and began spreading the word, with the hope that others would take actions inspired by the film’s shocking revelations.

In the middle of the pandemic, we opened with great press at the appropriately named Dark Side Cinema in Corvallis, Oregon. Lincoln County Community Rights (LCCR), a group of highly motivated environmental activists, helped promote the virtual cinema run which ended up breaking previous ticket sales records at the theater.  LCCR, featured in the film, sponsored a uniquely victorious 2017 ballot box initiative to ban the aerial spraying of herbicides and recognize the rights of the Siletz River watershed. They got behind the documentary in a big way, publishing op-eds and reaching out to groups in adjacent counties. The Coast Range Association dedicated its weekly radio show to the film.

More and more community radio stations began programming shows on the film, platforming local activists to discuss how the documentary relates to the environmental challenges facing their communities. These virtual panels and roundtable discussions extended the content of the documentary in a crucial way.

In one discussion, now featured on the film’s website, Dr. Michael Skinner, Professor of Environmental Epigenetics at Washington State University’s School of Biological Sciences, reported on his recent research that documents how exposure to toxins leads to increased susceptibility to disease in future generations. Our exposure to toxins is a direct threat to the health of our descendants!

The timber and chemical industries which had spent great sums in attempts to defeat the 2017 Lincoln County spray ban were eerily silent. As the film screened, the industry awaited an appeals court decision on communities’ legal control over such environmental issues.

More than a dozen community theaters up and down the Oregon coast put the film on their virtual platforms. We set up a matching program that would provide free tickets to veterans, students and environmental activists affected by the herbicides. The film has now been screened in over 50 theaters and broadcast nationally and internationally via PBS’ Independent Lens and Al Jazeera.

Through cinematic experiences on a community level we continue to ride the film’s strong reception to reach an ever-broadening audience. The film’s depiction of two heroic women is striking a cord. Carol Van Strum is the widely known author of A Bitter Fog, who, in the film, recounts the story of the Citizens Against Toxic Sprays, a fearless legal and popular campaign to end aerial herbicide spraying in the Pacific Northwest’s national forests. Van Strum was also a key petitioner for the 2017 Lincoln County measure. The other protagonist, Tran To Nga, is a Vietnamese/French woman taking on virtually the entire American chemical industry in court in France.

Callers-in to community radio programs, irate that their own communities’ health was so callously threatened by corporate profit seeking, asked, “What can we do?” The answer was there in the documentary: Emulate the actions of those women. Put heat on the corporate lobbyists and the legislators who are on their take.

Lots of great things have happened for “The People vs. Agent Orange” since that early digital cinema run. The film won the Jury Award at the Eugene Environmental Film Festival where the judges described it as “Everything a great environmental documentary should be.”

The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) has remained a strong proponent of the documentary with screenings pending or already disseminated in Florida, Ohio, and other states. World BEYOND War, an environmentally oriented peace organization has featured the film on its large email list, as has Beyond Toxics, an organization very active in the fight against deadly herbicides.

The documentary’s historical cred got a big boost when it was chosen to receive the 2021 Erik Barnouw Award from the Organization of American Historians. PBS broadcast the documentary to a broad audience on June 28, 2021 via the Independent Lens series and reviews have been superb. Arte broadcast the film throughout Europe in both French and German. Other broadcasts have been programmed in Spain, Japan, and the Middle East. Demand for screenings by veterans and environmental groups has been strong via our institutional distributor, Collective Eye. 

We have good reason to believe “The People vs. Agent Orange” will be seen by people who will continue the fight for community environmental protection and power. 

It’s an uphill battle against some of the most powerful lobbies on earth. The courts have overturned the 2017 Lincoln County spray ban in Oregon and have dismissed Tran To Nga’s lawsuit against the American manufacturers of Agent Orange. The threats against our health posed by heedless profit-seeking are heavily empowered.

It will take a concerted effort by an awakened populace to bring about the necessary changes in our civic structures to secure control of our health and hold corporations accountable.

The posting of this piece is a reflection of CELDF’s commitment to featuring diverse perspectives and ideas in the quest to bring about a community rights and rights of nature existence into full being. 

Alan Adelson works in both film and print. His film and television credits include: One Survivor Remembers, (HBO,) 1995, European production coordinator, winner of the Best Short Documentary Oscar and three Emmy Awards; as producer, director and writer: Lodz Ghetto, (PBS, Channel Four, 9 other countries) short-listed for Best Feature Length Documentary Oscar, 1989, winner, International Film Critics Prize, 8 international film festivals; Two Villages in Kosovo, 2006, (ARTE, RTE), and In Bed With Ulysses, 2012.   The People vs. Agent Orange won the Jury Award in the 2020 Eugene Environmental Film Festival. Adelson made worldwide headlines with his investigative articles in Esquire and the Wall Street Journal revealing the disappearance of enriched plutonium from a nuclear reprocessing plant.

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