'Company Town': Film Review
Natalie Kottke-Masocco and Erica Sardarian's eco-doc looks at a small community grappling with runoff from Georgia-Pacific paper mills.
Since the swearing-in of climate-denier Scott Pruitt as head of the Environmental Protection Agency in February, concerned Americans have wondered how the EPA can survive being run by a man who so often has fought against its very mission. But like many eco-documentaries before it, Natalie Kottke-Masocco and Erica Sardarian's Company Town suggests the agency was grievously wounded long before Pruitt came on the scene — incapable of stopping flagrant polluters even when a community and journalists did its investigations. Charles and David Koch are the villains offered here, with one of their Georgia-Pacific paper mills wrecking life in tiny Crossett, Arkansas. Though hardly the first account of this particular episode, this sympathetic portrait will be well received by activists in niche theatrical play; on video, it will add to the case files of industry-vs.-America crime-fighting.
In this town of 5,507, most residents work at the big GP paper and chemical plant owned by the Koch brothers. It takes something dramatic to make citizens raise their voices against a company wielding such economic power — something like Penn Road, a street where 11 out of 15 households have lost someone to cancer.
David Bouie, a Baptist minister and former GP employee, lives on Penn Road, and right behind his house runs one of several unprotected streams where wastewater courses from the paper plant toward the Ouachita River. The Bouies and their neighbors don't need to be told that the vapors from these foul creeks can make them sick. But they do get help sussing out further effects, as when chemists come to measure well water tainted with benzene and other hazardous chemicals.
During the four or so years the filmmakers follow the case, "Riverkeeper" Cheryl Slavant joins Bouie in his campaign to attract regulators' interest. But interactions with the EPA move at an agonizingly slow pace. Bouie travels to another state to meet the administrator of his EPA division, and is promised a visit; eight months and some gentle reminders later, the administrator sends deputies to Crossett. But when locals take them out to gather evidence of the poisonous stuff GP has buried in unprotected fields, one sheepishly says, "I don't have anything to put it in." Rather than an investigation, the staffers have come to offer vague talk of "protocol" and "process."
When public meetings do attract state and local officials, residents' concerns are dismissed. Townfolk are told that their cancer rates aren't out of line with state or national averages. At this point, the film would be well served by some objective third-party input and hard stats: Kottke-Masocco and Sardarian have mostly offered us (horrific) anecdotal evidence, along with general discussion of Koch Industries' efforts to quash regulation. It may be obvious to us — that is, the preached-to choir who go see movies like this — that these streams of runoff are killing people. But movies like Company Town are most useful when they can be shown to the unconvinced and cut through the arguments of self-interested parties. Especially when, as Jane Meyer has noted in The New Yorker, Koch Industries has lately tried to rebrand itself, outrageously, as a champion of the working-class Americans the system is rigged against.
Production company: Penn Road Productions
Distributor: First Run Features
Directors-screenwriters: Natalie Kottke-Masocco, Erica Sardarian
Producers: Natalie Kottke-Masocco, Erica Sardarian, Edgar Sardarian, Adam Paul Smith
Executive producers: David Johnson, Sidney Blumenthal, David Brock
Director of photography-Editor: Edgar Sardarian
Composers: Zachary Dawes, Adam Gunther, Sean O'Brien