Images fom Blue Vinyl:

Blue Vinyl opens with a shot of the Helfand family home before vinyl replaces its wood siding.

A shot of a PVC Complex in Lake Charles, Louisiana contrasts horrifically with the suburban Helfand home on Long Island.

Despite the obvious dangers of lake pollution, people continue to fish in Lake Charles for sport and food.

Helfand celebrates during Mardis Gras in Lake Charles while displaying the finished product of the Lake Charles PVC plants.

Mossville, Louisiana citizen, Diane Prince, discusses her own dioxin-related cancer with the filmmakers, introducing environmental racism to the film.

Filmmakers attempt to tour the Lake Charles, Louisiana, PVC industrial complex.



Give me shelter: the ecology of the home in Blue Vinyl and Libby, Montana

by Robin L. Murray and Joseph Heumann

Helfand films the removal of rotten wood siding from her family home. The shot establishes her presence as a character in the film. The Blue Vinyl title shows us the completion of the new siding.

Although many documentaries explore the devastating sense of loss residents feel when their homes are lost or destroyed by everyday eco-disasters, few examine the environmental consequences of the building materials used to construct the home. Blue Vinyl (2002) and Libby, Montana (2004) move beyond lamenting eco-driven loss of the home place found in environmental documentaries from mountaintop removal films such as B. J. Gudmundsson’s Rise Up! West Virginia (2007) and Mountain Mourning (2008)[1] [open endnotes in new window] to Josh Fox’s anti-fracking expose, Gasland (2010), and unmask some of the environmental hazards of the home itself. Although their documentary approaches differ, both Blue Vinyl and Libby, Montana reveal the toxic environmental hazards faced by workers constructing housing materials and the homeowners themselves, with Blue Vinyl focusing on the dangers of Polyvinyl Chloride, and Libby, Montana highlighting asbestos and its mineral source, vermiculite.

In the personal narrative-driven Blue Vinyl: The World’s First Toxic Comedy (2002), co-director and writer Judith Helfand and co-director/cinematographer Daniel B. Gold become comic detectives in their attempt to find a viable solution to Helfand’s parents’ home repair dilemma:  Is it possible to replace rotting wood siding with “products that never hurt anyone at any point in their life cycle” but still provide the economy, endurance, and good looks of cheap but toxic blue vinyl? After attempting to convince her parents to forego their new vinyl siding choice for a more environmentally friendly alternative (as long as it’s cheap and looks good), Helfand and Gold embark on an investigative journey that reveals both the dangers underpinning vinyl use and the challenge to find a viable, affordable, and environmentally friendly alternative.

In Libby, Montana, directors Drury Gunn Carr and Doug Hawes-Davis take a more traditional documentary approach to expose the health hazards asbestos has caused in Libby’s mines and factories from 1919 until their closure in 1990. Also structured like a mystery, this social documentary combines talking head and direct cinema approaches to illuminate the biggest case of community-wide exposure to a toxic substance in U.S. history, resulting at last count in an estimated 1,500 cases of lung abnormalities. The film carefully documents the history of a town that moved from logging to mining vermiculite. Ninety-two percent of  people who worked for the mine more than twenty years died from lung disease. Most condemning is evidence that W. R. Grace & Company knew the danger of asbestos and did nothing. According to the film, despite overwhelming health problems and clear signs of criminal negligence, the EPA’s arrival in 1999 leads only to more wrangling, this time over whether or not Libby should be labeled a Superfund site.

Blue Vinyl provides a narrative of discovery in which Helfand and Gold reveal what the dangers PVC mean for not only her parents and other suburbanites keen on siding their homes with vinyl, but also for PVC chemical plant workers and home dwellers nearby.  Libby, Montana documents a mystery now solved but unresolved due to bureaucratic battles by EPA officials and corporate leaders over designating the town a Superfund site. In these eco-documentaries, multiple issues of home and homelessness are explored, revealing a plethora of environmental problems that, according to Blue Vinyl and Libby, Montana,  especially, should be addressed no matter how difficult the task. The repercussions of doing nothing are too toxic for both human and nonhuman nature. Overlooking these eco-disasters may turn the everyday into catastrophe, these films assert, reinforcing the power of an environmental justice movement grounded in an equitable and humane vision of home.

Although the documentary strategies applied in Blue Vinyl are more compelling than those in Libby, Montana these films both effectively illustrate the complexity of environmental justice issues. Environmental injustice, lack of human rights, and, to a certain extent, environmental racism intersect in the literal study of homes in Blue Vinyl and Libby, Montana. For these films’ directors, it’s not just how you live and how you build your home, it’s where you live and what’s around you that contribute to the everyday eco-disasters associated with constructing and sustaining shelter.  

Blue Vinyl and environmental justice

Blue Vinyl highlights environmental justice and racism issues associated with both production of housing materials and the housing industry. Helfand introduces these issues by documenting the environmental effects of home construction after talking with her parents about new siding for their home. Their red wood is rotten and must be replaced. Helfand’s mother thinks her daughter overreacts to the family’s choice to replace their old wood siding with vinyl. But because Helfand had a rare form of cervical cancer caused by the DES her mother was given during pregnancy, worries about toxic chemicals used in vinyl’s PVC production are a priority for her now. Helfand’s poignant documentary and video diary, A Healthy Baby Girl (1997) illustrates the sense of loss she encountered after the cancer forced her to undergo a radical hysterectomy.  In her exploration of the ecology of home building, Helfand wonders, then, is vinyl siding safe? Blue Vinyl documents the years of detective work Helfand and her co-director Gold perform to discover and reveal their answers.

The film has been both heralded and slammed, primarily because of its rhetorical strategies. It won numerous awards and received laudable reviews  from many reviewers.[2] Other reviewers, however, highlighted weaknesses. For example, The City Paper suggests the film’s narrative may be “manufactured” or “at least jury-rigged.” Reviewer Christopher Null describes it as “extremely long,” and Bill Durodie of the conservative website “Culture Wars” calls Blue Vinyl “a case study in dumbing down.” For us, however, even though Helfand and Gold’s documentary journey to reveal the dangers of PVC production and use may be diluted by Helfand’s choice to personalize the issue in relation to her parents’ siding and her own health issues, it effectively illustrates and addresses environmental injustices of home construction.

Blue Vinyl effectively documents the disastrous consequences faced by residents and workers denied environmental justice. According to the EPA,

“Environmental justice ensures that no population, especially the elderly and children, are forced to shoulder a disproportionate burden of the negative human health and environmental impacts of pollution or other environmental hazard.”

Environmental justice breaks down into three distinctive categories: procedural inequity, geographical inequity, and social inequity. These categories serve as the basis for the UN Draft Principles on Human Rights and the Environment, which state:

    1. “Human rights, an ecologically sound environment, sustainable development and peace are interdependent and indivisible.
    2. All persons have the right to a secure, healthy and ecologically sound environment. The right and other human rights, including civil, cultural, economic, political, and social rights, are universal, interdependent and indivisible.
    3. All persons shall be free from any form of discrimination in regard to actions and decisions that affect the environment.” (Cifuentes and Frumkin 1-2)

By integrating interview data into a personal journey from a Long Island home to the source of its vinyl siding, Lake Charles, Louisiana, the film successfully illustrates the dangerous ramifications to the health and welfare of residents and workers when denied an ecologically sound and healthy environment and forced to endure environmental discrimination and the environmental racism associated with it.

As in A Healthy Baby Girl, filmmakers Helfand and Gold choose to explore and expose an environmental disaster by providing personal connections with its health hazards. In A Healthy Baby Girl, Helfand individualizes dangers of DES exposure by exploring her own responses to cervical cancer with a poignant video diary. Maintaining a serious tone aligns well with her sense of mourning after her own DES-related hysterectomy. As Gold explains in an interview with New England Film.com,

“in A Healthy Baby Girl, Judith shot nearly the whole thing herself, and it wouldn't have been appropriate for anyone else to shoot it. It was all about the intimacy... a family who has suffered toxic exposure.”

In Blue Vinyl, Helfand and Gold add a comic tone to a personal narrative approach that captures stories in two settings, Long Island and Lake Charles. More importantly, the film is effectively structured to transform personal narrative into powerful rhetoric. By interspersing talking heads, beautiful minimalist animation by Emily Hubley and Jeremy Dickey, and inter-titles with the stories narrated in its two distinct settings, the film argues vehemently against the production and use of PVC, the source of vinyl siding.  Ultimately, the film strategically draws on arguments used to convince Helfand’s own parents to discard their vinyl siding for an environmentally sound alternative to prove the environmental dangers of PVC for us all.

Although the film opens with a title card about the ubiquitous use of vinyl siding, it is the story of Helfand’s parents’ need to replace their siding that captures attention. Helfand and Gold adeptly connect Helfand’s parents’ decision to replace their rotten wood siding with vinyl with the everyday ecodisaster associated with its production. When Helfand protests the change of siding, for example, her parents suggest she video the wood to highlight its decay, providing a catalyst for the narrative documentary that follows. Helfand’s personal story becomes less intimate too than in A Healthy Baby Girl, “free[ing] her up to be more of a character and g[iving] her the opportunity to do something more visually,” according to Gold.  Helfand’s role injects personality into the film. By appearing as both a narrator and a character in the film, Helfand attempts to connect emotionally and intellectually with the audience, so they too become part of her journey.  

 Some may see Helfand and Gold’s approach as a weakness because it promotes a limited perspective with no attempt for balance and, at times, a seemingly “manufactured” narrative, a weakness that prompted Michael Moore to rename his feature, Roger and Me (1989) a movie instead of a documentary (Aufderheide 4). For us, however, their approach strengthens their arguments by making the audience members of the Helfand family. As Aufderheide asserts, “Helfand becomes a representative of the public—people who need inexpensive siding and also suffer the health consequences of using it” (8), but this representation also allows audiences to identify with the film’s complex issues and connect with its anti-dioxin rhetoric.

Ironically, cancer-causing PVC is used to produce medical equipment, including IV bags and lines In this animated image from Hubley and Dickey, a PVC plant is represented as a world-wide bomb.
The cataclysmic fire at the MGM Grand Hotel killed and injured more people with smoke from burning PVC products than the flames themselves. In long shot, a cheery billboard seems to welcome people to Lake Charles industrial complex and wish them luck.

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