AUSTIN FILM FESTIVAL 2010
By Don Simpson | October 19, 2010
Director: Zed Nelson
A “shelter in place” is when all people must: Go inside a building or vehicle; close all windows and doors; and turn on the television or radio for more information. Directed by photojournalist Zed Nelson, Shelter in Place is a documentary film about the Port Arthur, TX communities that live in the polluted dark shadow of the Texan petro-chemical industry and are therefore all too familiar with sheltering in place. Nelson documents the industry emissions and the social conditions that are a direct result of the political and big business priorities of a wealthy, fervently pro-industry Republican state. Oil refineries and petro-chemical plants help make the Texan economy one of the richest in the country.
Every year, Texas industry is permitted by law to emit millions of tons of toxic pollutants into the air including benzene, butadiene, hydrogen sulphide, and nitrogen oxide (all known or suspected carcinogens with a bevy of other proven health risks; some are also major contributors to ground-level ozone). Texas refineries are also allowed by law to release thousands of tons of additional toxic pollutants in “upsets” or unscheduled emissions (there can be over 13,000 of these purportedly “unusual” instances every year).
The residents of Port Arthur are treated as if they’re expendable, occasionally granted small payoffs of a couple hundred bucks so they will not file future health claims against the petro-chemical plants. They are almost all African-American. They are all poor and under-educated. They do not have any political influence. They have no means to fight the Goliath Texas refineries. They need those small paychecks to survive; if they had more money, they would probably move away. Trust me, if you have ever smelled Port Arthur (especially during the summertime) you would never choose to live there. There is a reason why some people refer to this region as the armpit of Texas — it is unbearably hot, humid and rank.
Nelson allows the Port Arthur residents ample time to ruminate about their experiences living under the cloud of the heavily polluting refineries. Shelter in Place also tracks the undercurrent of a growing social unrest within the Port Arthur communities (at least partially inspired by the election of President Obama). The evils of the pollutants seep into the local Evangelical leaders sermons and white lawyers try to stir up enough support for a class action suit. There is a glimmer of hope. Change we can believe in might be coming.
Shelter in Place is an intriguing — yet, clocking in at 48 minutes, all too brief — documentary about a community battling against environmental pollution and the evil Behemoth of corporate power. Shelter in Place’s incredibly empowering narrative is quite beautiful to watch (with lots of worthwhile, seemingly off-the-cuff, b-roll) but I am not entirely satisfied with when Nelson opts to end the film — it seems to end too soon or at least too abruptly. Though I do understand it is difficult to determine when to end a documentary like this one, because the story never ends… And this story may never end, at least not as long as Rick Perry is governor of Texas.
Here is hoping that the EPA grows some balls and takes Perry and his big business buddies to task for their countless anti-environmental shenanigans! I realize that we live in a capitalist society, but even die hard Republicans need to see that there are times when profit should not be the deciding factor — first and foremost when the health and safety of U.S. citizens is put at risk! We have learned time and time again that capitalism does not promote self-regulation, so no matter how much you detest “big government” (I’m looking at you Tea Partiers) we need government agencies like the EPA to have the power to protect us. Rather than doing away with federal regulatory agencies, let’s work on making them function more efficiently and effectively. OK, I’ll hop off of my soap box now…