'Mossville: When Great Trees Fall': Film Review

Alexander John Glustrom/River Films
A powerful portrait of the human cost of environmental devastation.
5/14/2020

Alex Glustrom's documentary profiles the last remaining resident of a once-thriving Louisiana town decimated by the building of massive petrochemical plants.

"We're in beautiful downtown Mossville," says Stacey Ryan, the central figure in the documentary Mossville: When Great Trees Fall, as he waves his arm toward the supremely ugly petrochemical plants and construction projects surrounding him. "Population of one," he adds bitterly, essentially summing up the central theme of Alex Glustrom's powerful film concerning the environmental ravaging of a once-thriving community.

Ryan is the last man standing in a rural town that at one point had a population of 8,000. Founded in the late 19th century by freed slaves, Mossville, Louisiana, is where his family has lived for generations. Once filled with natural beauty (the film's title, referencing the fruit trees that used to be abundant in the area, is inspired by a Maya Angelou poem), the town was essentially taken over by Sasol, or South African Synthetic Oil Limited, an energy and chemical company that wanted to expand to America. They were welcomed with open arms by then-Gov. Bobby Jindal, seen in a news clip extolling the jobs and prosperity that the company would bring to the state.

Unfortunately, it came with a cost. Sasol built 14 plants in the community, and the resulting chemical spills, fires and general contamination eventually drove out all of the residents. Except for Ryan, who was first offered the grand sum of $2,000 to relocate. He stubbornly refused to leave, determined to fulfill the legacy of his ancestors. They include his now-deceased parents, who both died of cancer a few years after Sasol built their plants.  

In the film's most haunting scene, Ryan — tears streaming down his face — watches a years-old video in which they deliver an anguished account of the serious afflictions suffered by them and other family members. Ryan himself has not been spared, his health having become seriously compromised by his years of exposure. As a result of his hazardous living conditions, he's unable to have his 5-year-old son stay with him. Ryan is also forced to fend for himself, since his electricity, water and sewer system have been cut off from the modest trailer in which he lives. Fortunately, his skills as a mechanic enable him to jerry-rig various solutions. The other residents have long since accepted financial offers to be relocated, many of them suffering from major health issues.

The doc parallels the situation in Mossville with that of the black communities living near Secundo, the massive Sasol-owned South African chemical plant that is described as being "the biggest source of carbon dioxide on the planet." There's no small irony in the fact that the African American population of Mossville has been displaced by a company created by the South African government during the apartheid era as a result of international sanctions.  

Mossville: When Great Trees Fall proves more satisfying on emotional than informational terms. The tragedy of the community and its inhabitants is vividly conveyed, and Ryan is a deeply sympathetic figure even if his behavior seems less than rational in the long run. But we learn next to nothing about the legal processes and media coverage that surely accompanied the building of the massive industrial project. Nor do we hear anything from the perspective of the Louisiana government or Sasol itself. The film presents a powerful portrait of displacement and environmental devastation stemming from corporate interests, but it ultimately leaves the viewer with more questions than answers.

Production company: Fire River Films
Distributor: Passion River (Available at mossvilleproject.com/screenings)
Director-director of photography-editor: Alex Glustrom
Producers: Daniel Bennett, Katie Mathews, Catherine Rierson
Executive producers: Linda Karn, Michelle Lanier
Composer: Carlos Jose Alvarez

76 minutes