If you are at all concerned about the future of our environment, especially if you live in the United States, you need to see the award-winning documentary ‘Unfractured’, from director Chanda Chevannes. It follows the story of biologist and mother Sandra Steingraber who reinvents herself as an activist, throwing herself into an environmental war that many believe is unwinnable.
Climate change, environmental science and fracking have become major political talking points, but when it comes to the actual issues, science doesn’t play politics. The United States is the only country in the world that has a major political party (the Republican party) denying the effects of climate change. While they choose to share misinformation and lies, there are people who are willing to put their lives and bodies on the line to fight for humanity. Sandra is one of those people, whose inspiring journey is a wake up call to us all.
We had an opportunity to speak in depth with both Sandra and Chanda about the film as it was part of the DOC NYC festival line-up. If there was ever a film to get you fired up about being part of the #resistance, it is ‘Unfractured’.
How did you first come across Sandra’s work and what made you want to make a documentary about her?
Chanda Chevannes: I first came across Sandra Steingraber’s work in 1998. I was just out of high school and Sandra had recently released the paperback version of her groundbreaking book, ‘Living Downstream’. That book is an ecologist’s investigation into the environmental causes of cancer, but it’s also a very personal book—because Sandra was diagnosed with bladder cancer when she was twenty. So the book tells the story of Sandra’s experience of cancer, and also the story of the science that links cancer to toxic chemicals.
I was deeply inspired by ‘Living Downstream’. I felt certain someone would make a movie adaptation of it someday. Little did I know—that someone would be me! Sandra and I worked on a documentary adaptation of her book for four years and we released the film in 2010.
When our work on ‘Living Downstream’ was over, however, I watched as Sandra reinvented herself. She had always been an introspective scientist who was working to bring the evidence to activists. But now, as fracking threatened to come into her home state of New York, she began to feel the need to step into the role of an activist herself. So, I spent another four years working on ‘UNFRACTURED’, which tells that story.
Congrats on winning Best Canadian Feature at the Planet in Focus Environmental Film Festival! What does it mean for you as a filmmaker to have your work recognized by industry peers?
CC: Thank you! My entire experience at Planet in Focus was a great honor. We were invited to screen the film as the festival’s Opening Night Gala, after the screening, Sandra and I shared the stage with Joanna Kerr, the Executive Director of Greenpeace Canada and Marc Glassman, the senior programmer at Planet in Focus and the editor of POV Magazine. It all meant a lot to me. Planet in Focus was our World Premiere, and to receive such strong recognition right out of the gate is really energizing.
It’s crucial to have the support of colleagues and friends. But what’s been even more meaningful to me are the comments that I’ve received from young women—most of whom aren’t in the industry at all.
After the screening, after my master-class, and after my speech at the awards ceremony, I was approached by dozens of young women who just wanted to thank me. The film tells Sandra’s story as she fights publicly for a ban on fracking, alongside thousands of other New Yorkers. But it also tells a far more personal story, in which she struggles at home to meet the needs of her two children and her husband, who is suffering a series of strokes. That’s a story that is tricky to tell. It’s the kind of story that—as women—we often choose not to tell, for fear of looking weak.
But that’s the power of ‘UNFRACTURED‘: it’s honesty about Sandra’s struggles and her imperfections. I think that what resonated with the young women who approached me was that this kind of authenticity and honesty feels risky, but when they see other women taking those risks on screen and on stage, it suddenly feels possible for them to do in their own lives.
In your powerful acceptance speech you spoke about being “angry” at the current state of politics and using your films as a voice to shine a light in the darkness. Can you explain more about this mission?
CC: It sounds hokey, but I’ve always known from a young age that I was motivated by two impulses: to be creative and to work for justice. And it always felt like those impulses were incredibly disparate. I really felt like I had to pick one or the other. So, I applied to film school, and I thought I had given into the creative impulse and abandoned the impulse towards justice. But, what I realized in the very first year was that documentary filmmaking was absolutely the way for me to answer to both those parts of myself.
Up until now, I have been cautious about the ways in which I have done that. My work—and my style of professional and personal interaction—has always been diplomatic, gentle, and reserved. But, recently, I have begun to feel that the time for diplomacy has passed.
In ‘UNFRACTURED’, we see what those who are normally diplomatic, gentle, and reserved will do when they begin to get angry. They see a company threatening their way of life and the safety of their water. These people are scientists, teachers, musicians, grandmothers. They normally lead quiet lives. But they will speak out, they will blockade, they will commit acts of civil disobedience, they will get arrested, and they will even go to jail. That’s the power of impatience and that’s the power of anger. And that’s where we all need to be right now.
What do you hope audiences will take away from watching ‘Unfractured’ and learning about Climate Change and Sandra’s work?
CC: I hope that people will walk out of the theater and feel empowered and inspired. I want them to see Sandra as a normal person, with the same struggles and flaws we all share. She’s often been celebrated as a hero. And it’s true that she’s inspired and motivated a lot of people—including me! But at the end of the day, Sandra is just one person in a cast of thousands who fought with their whole hearts for a ban on fracking in New York. And I hope that’s what people take away from the film: that activism does matter, that we have the power to make a real difference, that we each have a role to play in making big change in our world, and that we must do it now.
How long have you been an environmental activist, and why did you start?
Sandra Steingraber: I’m a PhD ecologist. As such, I study how ecosystems function. All ecologists are necessary activists because we have a stake in protecting the environments we study and love. I became an environmental activist in 1985 when I was studying trees with photosynthetic bark in the rainforests of Central America and could hear the sound of chainsaws in the distance. It wasn’t enough to collect good data on adaptations of woody plants to low light levels in the tropical understory. I felt called to protect the tropical understory from wholesale destruction.
But until the shale gas army arrived at my front door in upstate New York 25 years later, I saw my role as providing good data to those on the front lines. I called myself a bridge and a two-way translator between scientists and activists. In fact, I think I even identify myself that way in Chanda’s earlier film, ‘Living Downstream’.
When I learned, in 2010, that 40 percent of the land in my county—including parcels at the end of my road and within my own village—had been leased to the gas industry for fracking, I became a member of a front line community. And I became an activist of another kind. I became willing to put my body on the line to protect my children and the groundwater and climate on which their lives depend.
In July 2011, I watched a judge sentence University of Utah graduate student, Tim deChristopher, to two years in federal prison for his (successful) attempt to stop illegal fracking on public lands. I was at the courthouse that day in Salt Lake City. Tim said to the judge, “This is what love looks like.” A few days later, I learned that I was the lucky recipient of a Heinz Award for my earlier work on environmental health. Instead of using the $100,000 prize money to study fracking, I decided to use it to stop it. That’s how I became a co-founder of New Yorkers Against Fracking.
The issues of climate change and fracking have become major political talking points over the past couple of years. Do you see this is a positive or negative thing?
SS: Science is a public servant. The findings of science are obtained through objective analysis, but the conclusions and recommendations based on those findings are not politically neutral. There is a difference between objectivity and neutrality, as I say in the film. It’s good and right that the issues of climate change and fracking are part of the public conversations that citizens have with their elected political leaders.
It was in that spirit that I became a co-founder of Concerned Health Professionals of New York. We compile peer-reviewed data on the risks and harms of fracking and present the findings of our compendium to elected officials and members of the public. I quote from this document in one pivotal scene in the film, and it’s cited in the credits at the end: http://concernedhealthny.org/compendium/
The negative part is this: the U.S. Republican Party is the only dominant political party in the entire world that denies the science of climate change. And actively spreads disinformation about the state of the evidence found in that science. The current administration fosters an atmosphere of hostility toward climate science and climate scientists—going as far as to forbid federal scientists from speaking or attending climate science conference and taking data bases off of public websites. When science is under attack by a political party, we have to fight back. Attacking climate science is not a political talking point. It’s the opposite of talking. It’s silence. It’s censorship.
For those who watch ‘Unfractured’ and want to be part of the change, how can they easily explain the issue to their family and friends?
SS: Fracking is a method for extracting oil and gas trapped as tiny bubbles in rocks far below our feet. Fracking deliberately poisons fresh drinking water with toxic chemicals and turns that water into a club to smash apart our nation’s bedrock in order to extract those fossil fuels, push them into pipelines, deliver them to burner tips, and light them on fire. Along the way, fracking generates massive amounts of liquid toxic waste whose underground disposal is definitively linked to earthquakes.
The jobs that fracking provides are dangerous, temporary, and expose workers to known carcinogens. Air pollution follows fracking wherever it goes and is definitively linked to public health health problems. Fracking is an inherently leaky technology that pours methane into the atmosphere. No known regulatory framework can make fracking safe or prevent these leaks. Other choices are available to us. Anything fracked gas can do, wind, water and solar power can do better, more safely, more cheaply, for longer periods of time, and with higher employment opportunities.
You are an activist willing to risk being arrested, and have literally put your body on the line for the sake of the cause. Why did you choose to do this?
SS: We stopped fracking in New York State without resorting to civil disobedience—although we were ready to take this tactic. Happily, the science spoke, and the governor listened. Fracking was banned in New York because it threatened New Yorkers with demonstrable public health risks and because the governor’s constituents made it clear through political action that they were unwilling to bear these risks.
By contrast, we could not stop the expanded storage of fracked gas at Seneca Lake on the basis of making a scientific case alone. So, I decided, if you won’t listen to the data, you will have to listen to my body blocking the trucks that service those lakeside gas storage caverns, which threaten the drinking water of 100,000 people.
‘Unfractured’ tells the story of the Seneca Lake uprising that ultimately resulted in the arrests of more than 650 people who felt the same way I did. What we love we must protect. That’s the credo that took me to jail. I think the film does a good job of visually capturing the experience of my incarceration.
What do you hope the increased awareness about fracking will change about the issue going forward?
SS: Our successful fracking ban in New York State has inspired and emboldened other citizen uprisings against fracking and its attendant infrastructure. We discovered through our fight in New York that the more that people know about fracking, the more they oppose it. The film includes explanations about the dangers of fracking that should help move the needle on public opinion.
But, even more importantly, it shows how otherwise shy and ordinary citizens fought and won a David versus Goliath battle with the gas industry when it rode into our community wearing a mantle of inevitability. In one of the last lines of the film, I point out that we crafted a slingshot made of equal parts love, science and grassroots political power. This film shows how we did it. May it help other communities up against the shale gas army shake off self-defeatism and do the same.