Into the Weeds is director/producer Jennifer Baichwal’s tenth documentary film. Her films are unusual, striking, eccentric and award-winning. They are also disturbing. Who are we, we humans? What are we up to? What makes us tick? How awful are we really? Pretty awful. But so intriguing; and so filmable.
Full disclosure: I spent considerable time with Baichwal while she was making a film based on my book, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, which is about credit and debit balances of all kinds, including religious exhortations – may our debts be forgiven – and the economics of nature: what is borrowed, either from people or from the land, what is given back and what happens if we don’t pay what we owe. For this film, Baichwal didn’t offer a straight transliteration of a text, but a series of real-life equivalencies: for debts, she included debts to the natural world, such as oil spills; for paybacks, she examined blood feuds.
Jennifer Baichwal is not like anyone else. Yes, I know – no one is like anyone else – but Jennifer Baichwal is really not like anyone else. She’s lacking an alertness-to-danger button, a lack that can land her in some very sticky situations. While filming Payback, she found herself in the highlands of Albania, where the ancient tradition of revenge killings was still flourishing. “We need to leave now,” her guide murmured, as the men she was interviewing showed signs of displeasure and began caressing their firearms. “What?” “We… need… to … leave… now!” “But I want to film the….” “NOW!”
And so it goes, in the lives of those attempting to corral Jennifer Baichwal. Among these is her husband, partner, and long-time cinematographer, Nick de Pencier. He is very calm. He has to be.
Jennifer Baichwal began her documentary career by interrogating the lives of artists, beginning with the non-mainstream and decidedly peculiar novelist, Paul Bowles. But the relatively disembodied pathways of art have a tendency to lead to the mazes and catastrophes of the concrete material world, and so it has been with Baichwal. Her project before Into the Weeds was The Anthropocene Project (2018), which combined a film, a book, and an art exhibit. For The Anthropocene Project, Baichwal worked with photographer Edward Burtynsky, who was the collaborator on another Baichwal project, Manufactured Landscapes (2006). This one showed us aerial photos of the enormous impacts various industrial resource-extraction projects have had on the planet – visible from space, as we are fond of saying. The Anthropocene Project took this examination a step further, exploring the processes and techniques that lead to these gigantic geological impacts. Its premise is that we humans are no longer living in a world controlled mostly by natural forces, but that the human race has now entered a new age on the planet – an age in which the biosphere itself is being reshaped by us, and not in positive ways.
Once you get hold of the end of that particular piece of string, it leads you into the tangled labyrinth. Everything is connected, so what’s being damaged by our most casual daily decisions? You’d be surprised. How badly are we messing up? Badly. Can we stop? It’s hard: we’re addicted to our own toxins. What are the penalties for not stopping? Severe.
Into the Weeds, which will have its world premiere as the opening night film at the Hot Docs film festival in Toronto April 28, takes us deeper into the tangled web we ourselves have woven, and deeper also into the deceptive practices this web requires and fosters. It’s also firmly in the tradition of Baichwal’s dangerous documentary escapades. Its subtitle is “Dewayne ‘Lee’ Johnson v. Monsanto Company,” and those familiar with the litigious natures of huge international corporations will testify that a decision to make a film like this would not be taken lightly by any normally self-protective person. For Baichwal, however, the main thought doesn’t seem to have been, “I’d better not do this because it could trash my life and bankrupt me forever,” but, “How could I not do this, and when can we start?”
Into the Weeds tells the story of a school groundskeeper called Dewayne ‘Lee’ Johnson, who was the first litigant to go to trial in what was to become a mass tort involving tens of thousands of other people suffering from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. At issue was a simple question: does glyphosate cause cancer? Glyphosate is the active ingredient in the once-popular weed killer, Roundup, and in Ranger Pro, a stronger version. Lee Johnson used copious amounts of Ranger Pro to control the weeds on school property. A representative from the local supply store told him it was “safe enough to drink.” (Hint: next time anyone tells you that about an unknown liquid substance, pour them a glass of it and say, “Bottoms up.” Ten to one they’ll claim they aren’t thirsty.) Johnson developed a strange, crusty, motley skin condition. He called Monsanto about it. They never called back.
In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a branch of the World Health Organization, published the results of its independent literature review. Although the Environmental Protection Agency had said glyphosate was safe, IARC classified it as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” A year later, Lee Johnson filed suit.
Of course, he didn’t file that suit alone. He couldn’t possibly have afforded it: nobody except a billionaire would have that kind of money. A group of law firms took it on: The Miller Firm, Baum Hedlund, Andrus Wagstaff and Weitz & Luxenberg, who are all specialists in this kind of David v. Goliath case. Thanks to the contingency system – if the suit is won, the litigant and the law firm share the pot, but if it’s lost, the law firm has gambled its time and expertise to no avail – Johnson had a dedicated team on his side. And he felt he wasn’t doing it for the money: he’s clear that he’d much prefer to have his health back. But the case was worth fighting for the sake of the many other people who, he’d now learned, were suffering from the same form of cancer that he was, and most likely for the same reason.
When Roundup first appeared, it was greeted as a miracle solution to a widespread problem. That problem is weeds. Weeds are plants of which you don’t approve. Here I’ll mention the book Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants by Richard Mabey on the positive side of weeds, and Stalking the Wild Asparagus by Euell Gibbons, about which weeds you can actually eat. But most people don’t care about weed-eating, or they don’t care yet. (When world food shortages kick in, out will come the foragers; but as it is, people love their pasta, canola oil and oats, and other stuff you can buy prepackaged.) Weeds are the bane of large-scale agriculture, but also of home gardeners, people who like tidy lawns, those who want the sides of their highways to be pleasingly naked, and dandelion-averse golfers. (Another hint: don’t lick your golf ball for luck. You don’t know what it’s been rolling around in. You wouldn’t want to get non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma of the tongue.)
Then along came Roundup. It killed leafy plants, but not grass. It killed leafy trees, but not conifers: hence the aerial spraying of enormous softwood plantations. And if you planted “Roundup Ready” seeds – wheat, for instance – and then sprayed the field, bingo – no weeds. Just before harvesting you could spray the crop again, because glyphosate acts as a desiccant: look, pre-dried kernels, all ready for market. It seemed too good to be true, and it was, but by the time the downsides became clear, an awful lot of farmers were hooked on glyphosate. And an awful lot of consumers were, too, because who doesn’t like cheap food?
More full disclosure: I was a child when an earlier miracle chemical appeared on the scene. That chemical was DDT. It killed insects, including insect pests of fruit crops and forests. It, too, was supposed to be safe. As kids in the 1940s, my brother and I used to squirt each other with the Flit gun: so much fun! My two apple-farming uncles farmers drove around in clouds of chemical spray, without any protective gear. They both got early cancer.
My father was a forest entomologist. He studied infestations – breakouts of tree-munching insects like spruce budworm, sawfly and forest tent caterpillars – that could lay waste to large tracts of timber. People began spraying for infestations, but the negatives became apparent quickly: DDT killed every kind of insect, including beneficial ones such as pollinators. Thus, by extension, it killed anything that ate insects, such as birds. Moreover, those insects that survived bred superbugs resistant to the chemical, just as the overuse of antibiotics has created supermicrobes, and glyphosate has resulted in superweeds. What to do? Increase the dose. And so on.
In 1962, along came Rachel Carson’s bombshell book, Silent Spring. If you want a dead world, a world without birdsong – she said, in effect – keep spraying. The chemical companies threw everything at her that they could think of – she was crazy, she was a single woman, she was a communist – but she stood firm; and she had the data. People listened to her. That is why there are still eagles.
To me, Lee Johnson v. Monsanto Co. feels like a reprise of the Carson battle. Nor will it be the last.
Into the Weeds follows the story of the trial itself, which is riveting. Through document disclosure, we learn of the lengths to which Monsanto was willing to go to protect its nasty secret, the carcinogenetic nature of glyphosate. The dirt they threw at IARC, so similar to the dirt thrown at Rachel Carson; the ghostwritten papers with fraudulent data, put together by Monsanto and signed by scientists who had been bought or duped; the “agency capture” – people working within outfits such as the Environmental Protection Agency who were on the side of Monsanto and actively bragging about it. The outright lies – barefaced falsehoods that dissolved when the tellers of them were confronted with their own e-mails. What is it that’s so gripping about courtroom dramas?
They are, of course, dramas – the lawyers and witnesses are the actors, and the play is like medieval performances of the Last Judgement. Trials are, in essence, whodunnits: follow the trail of evidence, uncover the demon, deliver some form of justice. In this case, a jury found that Monsanto was the demon, and stipulated a whacking sum in compensation for the harm done to Johnson. (Challenged, of course. Reduced, of course. But still a lot.) Baichwal’s rendition of the trial is a nail-biter, even though we viewers already know how it came out.
Lee Johnson’s winning his case wouldn’t have mattered that much to Monsanto. They could more than afford the payment. But the tens of thousands of others who then filed – that may have had some impact on them. Also the bad publicity. Also the countries – such as Malawi, Vietnam and the United Arab Emirates – that have now outlawed Roundup.
This momentum is coming none too soon. Glyphosate is now found in a wide range of foods. That means you’re eating and drinking it. What effect is that having on your Inner You? Here I’ll insert a little homily in praise of your gut microbiome. We contain multitudes: without the help of our inner nanobiosphere, we wouldn’t be able to digest our food properly and we’d poop ourselves inside out. That’s why you take probiotics after you’ve had antibiotics. As with your inner balance, so with the macrobiosphere that surrounds you: without the mini-lives that abound underground and underwater, we humans would be dead. And our chemicals are killing that mini-life.
Into the Weeds has many evocative subplots: the farmer who knows that spraying glyphosate is bad for him, but who can’t see a way out; Lee Johnson’s eloquent wife, Araceli, who makes you believe in beautiful souls; and the other people suffering from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma who testify. Then there’s Traditional Ecological Knowledge Elder Ray Owl, from the Sagamok Anishnawbek First Nation. We join him as he walks through his woodland, remembering what a lively place it used to be – lots of birds, insects and amphibians – and noticing how silent it is now, ever since the widespread aerial spraying of the conifer plantations inside his territory with leaf-killing chemicals. We listen to him as he explains why he feels he needs to do something about it. And we see him rallying a roomful of Indigenous Elders: will they help defend nature? One by one their old-person hands rise up, and the smile on his face is a sunrise. Makes me proud to be old.
“But Jennifer,” I said, after I’d watched the film. “Is Lee Johnson still alive?” After the horrifying shots of his destroyed skin, it seemed he couldn’t be.
“Yes,” she said. “And he’s coming to the opening.” Now that will be dramatic!
We owe Lee Johnson and his team a huge vote of thanks. Just how huge we will probably never know.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Into the Weeds premieres at the Hot Docs Canadian International Film Festival April 28. The film opens theatrically May 20 in Toronto and Vancouver, and throughout the spring in other cities
Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter. Sign up today.