Directed by: Lars Edman, William Johansson Kalén | 97 minutes | documentary
Ten years ago, two documentary makers exposed an environmental scandal in their graduation film ‘Toxic Playground’: a Swedish company was found to have dumped tons of toxic waste in Chile. The residents got sick; babies were born with abnormalities. The film also marked the beginning of a legal battle between the inhabitants of Chilean Arica and the Swedish mining company.
What is it about the timeless story of David versus Goliath that continues to intrigue us? And how can it be that in our day – although the public outcry almost always turns in favor of the subordinate party – these kinds of stories so often turn out in favor of the mighty Goliaths of this world? It’s not as if we mortals aren’t touched time and again by the injustice of these stories – think the Union Carbide (later Dow Chemicals) disaster in India’s Bhopal, closer to home the benefits affair, or further afield the original inhabitants of Brazil who regularly powerless against an unscrupulous government that allows ranchers and loggers to destroy their land. The hope that things can be done differently, that David can win the fight again, remains very much alive.
This is also the case in the impressive documentary ‘Arica’, a Chilean-Swedish-Belgian co-production directed by filmmakers Lars Edman and William Johansson Kalén. Their film tells the story of the Chilean village of Arica, in the desert-like north of the country, that is suing a Swedish mining company.
The Swedish Boliden was found to have shipped tons of toxic waste to Chile in the mid-1980s, to be processed there by the local company Promel, according to the plan. In reality, the waste was simply dumped on a vacant lot just outside the village of Arica. At the time of the dump, that site seemed to be far enough away from civilization, Boliden claims, but over time the neighboring residential area has expanded and the toxic site became a playground for the village children. Now, years later, the consequences are incalculable: children are born with abnormalities and dozens of villagers have fallen ill and died. The amounts of lead, mercury and arsenic in their bodies are far above the limit of what is tolerable for a healthy person – although Boliden questions those values.
In Chile, the state and the intermediary party, Chilean Promel, have previously been successfully indicted and held accountable. Only the source of the problems, the Swedish company Boliden, had not yet been held accountable. That is now about to change: the village is going to war, assisted by NGOs and a team of Swedish and American pro bono lawyers. The documentary, an unofficial sequel to the graduation film ‘Toxic Playground’ by the same makers, follows the run-up to the trial, the hearings themselves (the first in 2017 and the last in 2019) and its aftermath.
What is special about this story – which is cynically not unique – is the personal connection with the story of one of the two makers. Lars Edman, we gradually understand, was adopted by Swedish parents as a little boy from Chile, and his father worked for Boliden for years. The Swedish village where he grew up had grown into the mega-corporation, which provided a lot of employment in the close-knit community. The film also shows that a story like this is not black and white, but has shades of gray.
All the more regrettable that Boliden forfeits all possible sympathy during the film. This is mainly due to the army of lawyers and self-proclaimed ‘experts’ – think: chemists employed by the arsenic sector – who knowingly train the lawsuit and, according to the tactics we know from the tobacco industry or multinationals like Monsanto, sow confusion about the facts. Is arsenic really as harmful to health as everyone claims, and if so, how do we know that the victims have ingested the increased arsenic and mercury levels via the toxic substances of Boliden? Who says that can’t have another source like eating shellfish? An embarrassing suggestion, one of the villagers parries: (expensive) shellfish are the last thing on the menu of a poor community in the middle of a desert. But even though the residents and their lawyers patiently refute everything, the lawsuit is constantly hijacked by disinformation and blackmail from those involved.
The surfacing of Boliden is epitomized by Rolf, a former Boliden environmental manager, responsible at the time for the decision to ship the waste to Chile. When the filmmakers travel to Arica with the now retired Rolf, he still seems receptive to the idea that the company will still be held accountable for negligence. He has been moved to tears on several home visits. But once back in Sweden – far from the personal aspect of the case – he becomes encapsulated by the company’s cold legal approach until compassion is gone.
In addition to the images in the court, a number of scenes are also impressive, partly due to the involvement of Lars Edman, who has been visiting Arica regularly for about ten years and has built up a relationship with many of her residents. So too with Jocelyn, a child still when he meets her, who shows how extra nipples grow on her upper body. When he interviews her again years later, she is a mother herself and concerned about the health of her sons.
Also moving are the images of Edman who visits the grave of her daughter Fabiola with resident Milka, who probably died of lead poisoning – she was 17. At the grave, Milka, Edman and the viewer get a little angry.
The logical, perhaps also naive, question that leaves you as a viewer: couldn’t Boliden have donated part of the millions of crowns it spends on the lawyer team to Arica? The worst affected victims are also the poorest residents of Arica, who ended up in the farthest corners of the social housing area (closest to the toxic soil). Moreover, their demands are not high: the village wants the toxic terrain (it is still there!) to be cleaned up after all, and asks for better access to affordable health care. Even meeting the village without admitting guilt had been an admirable act. But as beautiful as the allegory is, in the capitalist present, Goliath does not just let David win.