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Plaintiff Dewayne 'Lee' Johnson listens to opening arguments for Johnson v. Monsanto Company, with attorney David Dickens, in Into the Weeds.Courtesy of Courtroom View Network and Disappearing Insects Productions Inc. / Mongrel Media

Into the Weeds: Dewayne “Lee” Johnson vs. Monsanto Company

Written and directed by Jennifer Baichwal

Classification N/A; 97 minutes

Opens May 20 in Toronto and Vancouver, expanding to other cities throughout the spring

Critic’s Pick

There is a cruel joke smuggled into the release date of Into the Weeds, Canadian filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal’s tremendous and head-shaking new documentary. Focusing on a landmark court case that questions the safety of Roundup, the most widely used weed killer in the world, Baichwal’s doc is the perfectly nerve-wracking film to open this year’s gardening season.

But timing aside, there is a kind of tremulous anxiety coursing through Baichwal’s film, which uses the narrative and emotional contours of a traditional courtroom thriller to scratch at something deeper and more existential: our increasingly toxic relationship with the natural world and how we might be headed toward an extinction of our own greed-driven making.

Filmed under-the-radar – when you’re making a film about agrichemical giant Monsanto (owned by pharmaceutical behemoth Bayer), you have to tread carefully – Baichwal’s film focuses on the distressing and dispiriting case of Dewayne “Lee” Johnson, a California groundskeeper who developed non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma after exposure to Roundup. The main issue of contention is whether the active ingredient in the product, a chemical called glyphosate, is considered carcinogenic to humans. The Environmental Protection Agency said “no.” The International Agency for Research on Cancer said “probably.” Cue the lawsuits, which eventually grew to a mass tort involving tens of thousands of others, with billions of dollars (not to mention lives) at stake.

Using Johnson as her story’s emotional anchor, Baichwal unravels a complex tale that involves all manner of courtroom drama, plus pointed flicks at the media’s culpability in the Monsanto narrative, and the unsettling ease at which certain corporate actors feel the world is theirs to influence. It culminates in a rat-a-tat trial that is both engrossing and deeply disturbing. (Do your best to avoid looking up the particular details of Johnson’s case, lest you spoil the doc’s emotional finale.)

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Into the Weeds tells the powerful story of Dewayne 'Lee' Johnson, a former Bay Area groundskeeper who takes on a multinational agrochemical corporation after a terminal cancer diagnosis.Courtesy of Mongrel Media

For those familiar with Baichwal’s acclaimed filmography – Act of God, Manufactured Landscapes, Anthropocene: The Human EpochInto the Weeds makes both perfect sense while also serving as a departure. Here, again, is a doc about humanity’s give-and-take (emphasis on “take”) relationship with planet Earth. And the story is occasionally illustrated with beautiful, wide-scale images of the world we have shaped to fit our purposes, courtesy again of cinematographer Nicholas de Pencier (Baichwal’s creative and personal partner), alongside John Price.

Yet much of Into the Weeds’ action takes place inside the stuffy and bland confines of a courtroom – not exactly Baichwal’s natural habitat, and a place where, without the aid of sexy actors playing attorneys and the dramatic friction of compressed narrative timelines, documentary drama typically goes to die. Yet through deft editing and a keen sense of detail, Baichwal manages to compress the case of Johnson vs. Monsanto Company into a superbly paced, tightly wound thriller. Watch it before you head to the gardening centre this weekend.

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