Interview Society

Life and death in Toxic Valley

The Endosulfan story is uncomfortably close to us. Pesticides are an every day reality. Australia-based filmmaker Simon Kurian tells the pesticide story with his feature length theatrical documentary Toxic Valley, filmed extensively, over three years plus a year of post production, in India and Australia. What started as an initial concept “of a short documentary on the Endosulfan story in Kasaragod” evolved into a larger story to include other parts of the country and moved abroad, to Australia.

Deeply affected by what he saw in Kasaragod, he says, “I knew then that this was not a story I could tell from Kasaragod alone. For one thing, many stories that come out of developing nations get dismissed as yet another tragedy that happens due to lax regulatory systems or poor awareness; that this would never happen in an advanced nation. That would then be a lie. So I knew then that I had to tell the story from a global perspective; not just as the story of Endosulfan but about pesticides in general which are causing so much damage to human health and environment. So we decided to expand the scope of the film and living as we did in Australia, it made sense to look at Australia.”

Kurian has worked for international television networks like BBC, Channel 4, CNN USA, TVNZ and Australian networks. His major documentaries are Thameswallah (as director of photography for BBC), All Our Children (as director, cameraman and line producer for BBC), Odyssey (as director, cameraman and line producer for Channel 4), For Better or For Worse (as director, writer, editor, producer for TVNZ) and most recently as director of photography for Felicity Kendal’s Indian Shakespeare Quest, in 2012, which was part of the BBC’s pre-Olympic special programming which followed actress Felicity Kendal as she retraced her father thespian Geoffrey Kendal’s journey through India in the 1940’s with his Shakespeare troupe. Simon was first assistant and additional photographer on the Merchant Ivory production, Cotton Mary.

Toxic Valley will be premièred in Sydney in November. Simon plans to bring the film to India, to Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi, Kasaragod, Hyderabad, Punjab and New Delhi. Edited excerpts from an email interview.

The access to the farms where you shot. Did you, at the start, state your purpose?

I am always upfront and honest about my intentions when I request people to be part of my film. Especially with a topic like this, access to people determines the impact of the film. We are dealing with human beings and expecting them to tell their stories, often painful stories in front of a camera. This requires a mutual trust. As a filmmaker I must have absolute respect for the people I am featuring in my film regardless of their views.

I give the example of Sheelavathi from Kasaragod who had been sprayed with Endosulfan on her way to school when she was seven years old. She collapsed and never left her bed again. She is now in her mid forties, severely handicapped and lives with her ageing mother. Many from the local and national media have visited and photographed and filmed Sheelavathi. When I went to her house I found her curled up in a bed in a dark corner, resigned to the fact that here was one more camera team to photograph her severely deformed body. I wanted to change this and let her tell her story. Though the people who took me to her home told me she would not speak on camera, I talked with her off camera and by the end of our conversation she was ready to tell her story.

Was there resistance?

In terms of resistance, oddly enough it was in Australia that we faced this. The national regulator, Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority as well as the agrochemicals peak body CropLife refused to be interviewed. As did the Minister for Agriculture. Manufacturers in India and Australia also refused interviews.

What aspect of filming was challenging?

The most challenging aspect of the film was filming with families in Kasaragod whose children had been born with severe deformities; to see the sorrow and helplessness of the parents, to witness the struggle of the children. This is emotionally wrenching not only during filming but also during the long process of editing where these images are played multiple times and stays in your mind.

Did you shoot in Punjab? Which are the places in India that you shot?

Yes we filmed in Punjab, in Bhatinda in the Malwa Region. We also filmed on the cancer train. Once again I focused here on the people that were at the centre of the cancer cluster in the Malwa region. It is devastating to visit communities where every other household has a person or more than one affected by or who has died of cancer. We also met some of the people who are working to raise awareness about the urgent need to move away from Punjab’s pesticide addiction that had started during the Green Revolution of the 1960s.

Pesticides were used in great quantities as part of the Green Revolution. In the immediate aftermath yields flourished, productivity was high and Punjab became India’s breadbasket. But now the tide has turned. Yields have begun lessening as the soil is degraded. Costs have risen as pests became resistant; the application of even greater quantities of pesticides are called for. Common birds and insects have disappeared.

Periyar: Apart from Punjab we also filmed in Eloor looking at the pollution that seeps into the Periyar every day thanks to the effluents that flow in from factories. including HIL. It is here in the backyard of these factories in Eloor that you have one of the most polluted water bodies in the world, the Kuzhikandam Thodu. At one point where the creek flows behind a factory, just a kilometre and a half away from Periyar, there is a pipe from the factory that directly washes into this creek. Downstream from this point the water was found to contain over 100 organic compounds, 39 of which were organo chlorines. This includes Endosulfan, DDT and its metabolites. All of which then flows directly into the Periyar. One of the activists I met there Zakir Hussain put it beautifully when he said that only man could destroy a precious resource that is the very source of life.

Did you find similar, disturbing effects in Australia?

Australia was one of the last nations among the Conference of Parties to the Stockholm Convention to ban Endosulfan. When the world began debating the dangers of Endosulfan, the Australian regulators did a risk assessment and decided that the risks posed by Endosulfan could be ‘managed’ and so even while their neighbour New Zealand banned Endosulfan they continued use. This was despite a large export consignment of Australian beef being rejected after Endosulfan residue was found in the meat back in 1999.

When we started researching to film in Australia we were seeking one place or community that could tell the story of environmental impact. The first person we spoke with was the New South Wales Green Party MLC the late John Kaye who had been one of the most vocal advocates in Australia seeking a ban on Endosulfan since the 2000’s. He told us about Northern Rivers in NSW, a region which once had a thriving fishery industry based around the Richmond River which flowed through the region. When we got to Northern Rivers what struck us first was how silent the river was. It was here we met Dr. Matt Landos a veterinary scientist who has been a leading voice calling attention to the deterioration of Australia’s marine environments and fishery stocks due to agrochemical pollution. Matt took us along the Richmond River to show us what had happened. It is quite eerie to go down a river that is as silent as the Richmond River is. You can go for miles and not see a single bird. Why? Because the pesticides and chemicals that leech into the river along with the sprayed soil and sediment from the farms, have polluted it and decimated the environment.

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