This Saturday, October 20, 2012, at 2:00 p.m. in New York City, Living Downstream, the film based on Sandra Steingraber’s stunning book of the same name–will have it’s premiere in New York City at Lincoln Center’s Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center. It will have its broadcast premiere in November on Outside Television.
Living Downstream follows in the tradition of Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking, Silent Spring (1962). Indeed, Steingraber has been dubbed by many as a modern-day “Rachel Carson.”
Living Downstream, first published in 1997, fell into my hands about ten years ago, only a few years after my own cancer diagnosis and loss of both parents to cancer. At that time I suspected that the cancer in my life and all around me had something to do with our poisoned environment. Steingraber’s book answered my questions about the connections between pollution and cancer and opened up a new world of understanding.
Living Downstream ultimately lead me down a new path both personally and professionally. Steingraber inspired my transformation from an English professor of the British Eighteenth-Century, to an Ecofeminist writer, activist, professor, and mother.
Now, I show the film Living Downstream, and teach Steingraber’s work every semester in my college courses. Not only is the research groundbreaking and impeccable, but her beautiful prose narrative makes otherwise tedious data accessible to lay people. By bringing in her personal story of cancer into the mix, Steingraber turns scientific facts about pollution and disease into something everyone can relate to.
Recently, I spoke to Steingraber and I asked her what she most wanted to accomplish in the film and book.
She said she wanted to achieve two things.
First, Sandra explained, “I wanted to tell the story of how chemical pollutants are playing an under-represented role in the story of cancer.”
Second, Sandra said, “I wanted to show how the ‘happy’ story of even a long-term cancer survivor like me, is not necessarily a story of triumphalism. Cancer is not a gift. It’s a massive waste of time. It triggers post-traumatic stress syndrome.”
In Living Downstream, the book, Sandra goes back and forth between scientific data linking toxics to cancer, and her own personal cancer story. The film tends to focus mostly on the personal, so for those less interested in scientific data, the film is a bit easier to get into. The film is visually beautiful, too, and it takes the viewer into the daily life of the biologist and cancer survivor. We see where Steingraber grew up in Illinois, we see Steingraber in her home in upstate New York, we see her cooking and eating with her family, putting her children on the school bus, talking to her husband, and running. It’s an intimate portrayal.
One of the most dramatic moments in the film takes place when Steingraber makes her regular visit to the urologist’s office for the dreaded “check up.” This scene was not in the original version of Steingraber’s book. In the book, after several chapters of scientific information, Steingraber shifts to a description of the moment she was diagnosed with bladder cancer at age twenty in her doctor’s office.
Chanda Chevannes, the filmmaker, and Sandra Steingraber wanted to replicate this traumatic moment in the film, which they obviously couldn’t do in a documentary. So, instead, they filmed Steingraber’s visit to a urologist’s office in the present–thirty three years after the original diagnosis.
In this scene, Sandra undergoes a cytoscopic test. As audience members, we witness, first hand, the fear and anxiety of the cancer patient–that feeling, Sandra describes as, “standing on the edge of a cliff, looking down into the abyss.”
“Certain scenes in the film and my life,” Sandra explains, “like the sound of cystoscopic instruments being pieced together and laid in a tray, and the sounds of the KY jelly being squirted out into an ultra-sound– these are traumatic triggers” that bring back that first dramatic moment of the cancer diagnosis. As Steingraber says, “you never stop being a cancer patient.”
After I show Living Downstream to my college classes, and the lights come up at the end of the film, there is the inevitable question.
“Why,” students rightly ask, “are we producing such dangerous chemicals and poisoning our environment and bodies, and why isn’t the government doing something to protect us? If Rachel Carson made the point in 1962 that DDT causes cancer, why do we still produce thousands of such chemicals that end up in our food, water, toys, body products, clothing, furniture, and building materials–and, inevitably, in our bodies–all these years later?”
These are the hard questions that Steingraber forces us to ask and face.
Today, several years after the making and writing of Living Downstream, Steingraber has become a leader against hydraulic fracking in her home of New York State. She joins Josh Fox, filmmaker of Gasland, and Mark Ruffalo actor and activist, Julian Lennon and Yoko Ono, and thousands of others.
“Fighting for the environment is our most urgent civil rights and justice issue today,” Steingraber says. “Environmental rights are in the order of the women’s right to vote in the early twentieth century, the abolitionist movement in the nineteenth, or the civil rights movement in the mid-twentieth. I like to believe that if I had been alive (and an adult) during those time periods, I would have fought for those causes as well.”
Steingraber recently gave away her Theresa Heinz award for $100,000 to anti-fracking groups and she spends all of her non-parenting time stumping for the cause. She gave away this money while she hasn’t had enough income to put aside money for her own children’s college saving accounts.
“My children’s college savings account,” Steingraber says, is a “safe and healthy earth. We’re walking with targets on our backs right now in my little village in upstate New York, as the fracking trucks roll through in preparation to start the drilling.”
Steingraber says she can’t be a “hepafilter” to protect her children and keep the poisons out of their home and bodies.
Perhaps not, but Steingraber can act with her pen, her heart, and her voice. And she does.
Dr. Heidi Hutner is Director of Environmental Humanities at Stony Brook University, where she teaches about Environmental literature, film and media. Read more of her work at her blog,Ecofeminist and Mothering Ruminations.