Last week – Becky and I went to a bonus screening at the Environmental Film Festival. The film was Living Downstream, about environmental causes of cancer told through the eyes of cancer “survivor” Sandra Steingraber.
We enjoyed it so much that after the film I stalked the filmmaker Chanda Chevannes to grab five minutes of her time, which involved a lot of waiting behind people telling her how much they enjoyed the film and she should make her next one about x, y, or z. So I waited for quite a while.
Fortunately Chanda (who I realized once the crowd moved out of the way, was pregnant and probably really tired of standing) was really nice and agreed to an interview. She gave me a copy of the film and offered to speak to me further while she was on the train back home.
The interview (slightly edited for space) appears below.
Katy: Why this film? It’s based on Sandra Steingraber’s book – why was it important to turn it into a film?
Chanda: I wanted to do this film when I read the book in 1998, right out of high school. I always thought it was cinematic, and I read it again in college, and again in film school. A few years ago, in my mid-20s – this was 2004, I contacted Sandra and she was very enthusiastic about the film, and we developed a friendship.
Katy: When did you start filming?
Chanda: We started filming in 2006 with a couple of short shoots and put together a trailer for the project. In 2008, we got word of a grant we had received so we could begin filming in earnest.
Katy: How did you translate a book into an effective film?
Chanda: Well, the book includes, I think as many as thirty chemicals that are found in the environment and may lead to cancer. Obviously, we could not include that many, so I always knew we’d need to do fewer chemicals. The film includes three filmed stories of chemicals, chemicals that we felt could shed light on the larger problem and would be easily referenced by the audience. These include Atazine, a farm chemical; PCB, industrial compounds, and tap water.
The other part of the film includes the role of Sandra as a cancer patient, and that was something that I felt very strongly that I wanted to include. But it was difficult because the book is written retrospectively. Her cancer diagnosis was thirty years earlier. And how to present that story in a way that was meaningful, was a challenge. I always knew I didn’t want to do recreations. I wanted the personal story to be present, to have a sense of immediacy.
Even though she was thirty years out of a cancer diagnoisis – it lurks in the back of your mind. Particularly with bladder cancer, where there is a 50-70% chance of recurrence. You have to get yearly scans, it’s always a part of your life. That was the story we wanted to tell.
Katy: During the film, Sandra goes through these processes of getting her yearly check-up, and has a possible recurrence of the bladder cancer. What effect did that have on the choices you made in your film.
Chanda: Well, there were other kinds of scares in her life – only during times when we weren’t filming. Sandra was really the key. She really wanted to show the audience what it was like, and her openness really moved our story.
When I found out about her possible recurrence, Sandra called me. I was blown away by it. We had already started filming, but I knew this was the story that we needed to tell.
As a filmmaker, you have a structured story, and you want a happy conclusion by the end of the film. You want that beginning, middle, and end. But in this case, when the story ends, we don’t know how Sandra’s story will end. When we talk about the scare, there isn’t really a conclusion. It may be normal tomorrow. Or next week. But maybe not next year. So in the end, we felt that the ambiguity at the end of the film was more authentic.
Katy: Sandra shared some very intimate and uncomfortable moments of her life with you – including her yearly check ups. It was obviously moving to the audience to see that reality, and handled with a great deal of sensitivity, but I couldn’t imagine how uncomfortable it would be to have cameras around at that time. How did you develop that level of trust?
I remember knowing that as a filmmaker we needed to be there, to see the process. But we followed up when the time was right. A lot of that was Sandra. She really wants people to know what the experience was like. Bladder cancer is one of the cancers that isn’t talked about. It’s an environmental cancer. And she wanted to demystify it. The yearly exam is a good diagnostic test. It is uncomfortable and scary, and it’s an important tool. We all have an image of what a mammogram is like, we wanted to give the audience an image of what this test was like.
Katy: So how was it to structure this film? Did you have any surprises in editing it together?
Chanda: Oh, it was very, very difficult. Originally, I wanted to follow the structure of the book, with chapters – outside world ecology, inside our bodies, etc. But books and films are very different things. And when we strung it out it was just so modular. Not cohesive at all. Having these items in their separate little acts didn’t work. And didn’t really connect what those pieces were – why they were important and how they came together as whole.
So we used the old cue card method. Each story line gets a color – and we spread them across the acts and placement in time. I think we had like sixty cue cards spread all over the walls of the edit room. It was very challenging.
Katy: What did you film on?
Chanda: We shot on the PDW-F350 for the most part, it’s an XDCam HD format, shoots to disc. And we used an incredible Director of Photography Benjamin Gervais. We know each other film film school at Sheridan College.
Katy: Do you think going to film school is a valuable experience?
Chanda: I think it depends on the person and the experience. I hated high school, although looking back on it, it wasn’t that bad. I went to University, took a year off and then went to film school.
For me, it solidified my filmmaking technique and my decision to become a filmmaker. And there I was in my 20s, and my closest friends are still from film school. I married someone from film school. I have six or seven friends that I’ve gotten to keep close to over the years and work with as we move through life. I like to work in a team, and I was really lucky with the people that I met. Everyone doesn’t have that same experience. A lot depends on that.
Katy: What would you drink with your doc – what is the perfect drink pairing?
Chanda: I’m pregnant at the moment, so I can’t drink, but both Sandra and I love a glass of wine. And there’s fantastic wineries in Ithaca New York, near to where Sandra lives now. I think a glass of red wine from that area – sustainably produced with no atrazine, of course!
Katy: What’s next for you?
Chanda: I’m looking forward to greeting my baby soon. And we’ve just received some money to do outreach and produce educational materials to accompany the film, so I think I’ll be very busy with that for a while. What my next film project may be…I don’t know yet!
Five out of five cheers