It would be nice if some day we could say, "great, now we know about ALL of the human-made products and processes that can give us cancer and harm the planet, now let's start doing something about them." But alas, it seems that everywhere you look, there's a new story about a chemical or drug or food or way of raising your children that can endanger our lives. Some of it is fear-mongering, but some of it is an honest and long-overdue look at the products and practices that we take for granted, examining them for harm they might cause and seeking healthier alternatives. And in her award winning film Blue Vinyl, that's just what Judith Hefland has done with...get ready for it...vinyl siding.
Hefland takes us on her very personal journey through discoveries about the surprisingly harmful aspects of vinyl products at every step along their existence - from production to household use to incineration - and how they seem to be creating unnecessary and quite serious health risks around the world. The film plays out like many other documentaries about such things, and it could just as easily be about tobacco usage, asbestos, and similar prodcuts: coverups about just what the producers knew about the potential dangers and when, how the items have become part of the mainstream because of their convenience and popular appeal, a growing movement of people educating themselves and their communities about the dangers, and the massive resistance by corporations and governments to institute change. But Hefland does make the whole issue very approachable - every step of the way is tied back to her parents` decision to replace the wood siding on their house with vinyl siding, and what that means for the family home and their opinions of vinyl as she shares her findings. The result is a powerful documentary that challenges and often shocks, and through its combination of sad stories and hopeful alternatives, makes for a really great movie watching experience.
The intimacy in Hefland's narrative doesn't stop with the stories of her parents decision-making, however. You can see her abilities and confidence as a documentary filmmaker evolve right before your eyes as the movie progresses, and it was this aspect of the film that impressed me most. She starts out with the almost entirely aesthetic issue of why her parents would bother to replace their siding at all, and ends up tracking down lawyers all over the country, negotiating tense interviews with vinyl industry spokespeople, traveling the world to witness the actions other countries are taking against vinyl executives, and learning to ask the right questions at the right moment. All of this seems to be inspired by her own experience with ovarian cancer, caused by DES (a synthetic estrogen and anti-miscarriage drug prescribed to her mother and millions of other women)...she draws on the concerns and lessons of that encounter with a dangerous product thought safe, and tries to do a good thing with a similar product that is still largely thought harmless by the public. Indeed, the very funding for the film seems to come in large part from her settlement with the makers of DES, and it's a form of poetic justice that she has done such amazing things with those resources.
Blue Vinyl is, at some level, just another film about the messed up way that we humans seem to be shooting ourselves in the foot with our approach to the products we develop and consume and the culture that drives those processes. These films seem to come out all the time now, and it's hard to find any particular beauty in one given the bad news that they bear. But at the same time, the film is a warm and engaging story that stands out as an excellent piece of documentary filmmaking, with a message that, despite its familiarity, is as important and relevant as ever.