Stacey Ryan did not think of himself as the hero of an environmental justice documentary. Ryan agreed to work with filmmaker Alexander Glustrom and the team of Mossville: When Great Trees Fall because he wanted the world to know his parents’ names. The Ryans lived in Mossville, Louisiana, a community surrounded by more than a dozen petrochemical refineries, and Sandra Ryan and Allen Ryan died of illnesses linked to toxic petrochemical exposure. Early in the documentary, Ryan pushes a tape into his VCR player to show Glustrom what he calls his “parents’ final testimony.”
In the video, Sandra Ryan sits on the couch next to her frail husband, who is so ill he seems not to be present.
“Why is it the whole community has the same problem?” Sandra Ryan asks. “My husband has cancer. I’ve had cancer. Dineen has Endometriosis. She can’t have children.” Sandra Ryan looks squarely into the camera and says, “We are human beings too. The color of my skin doesn’t make me a dog. It doesn’t make me a guinea pig. I’m human just like you. I breathe. I think. Yes, I think just like you.”
The video then goes blue, and Stacey Ryan is wiping away tears. The filmmaker and Ryan are alone together, and behind the camera, Glustrom’s sniffling can be heard as well. Ryan says that his father would be gone within a few months of this recording, and Sandra Ryan would also pass on years later. Stacey Ryan watches this video almost daily. The video is why Ryan elected to be featured in a film about Mossville, a film that becomes Stacey’s own testimony demonstrating the human cost of our global dependence on petrochemicals.
Mossville was one of the first communities founded by African Americans in Louisiana newly-free after the Emancipation Proclamation. Before refineries surrounded the town, and before Louisiana became the nation’s second largest producer of petrochemicals, Mossville was a largely self-sufficient farming community. Stacey Ryan describes it idyllically, as do other members of that community—of the barbeques and baseball games that happened there—and of the relative peace they felt as a Black community in a Deep South state with a large Ku Klux Klan population.
A South African petrochemical giant, SASOL, is razing Mossville for the construction of a ten billion-dollar petrochemical compound. SASOL has offered Stacey Ryan a pittance to buy his land, so Ryan decides to occupy the small plot of land he lawfully owns while his entire hometown is bulldozed. In the film’s opening, Ryan walks the street in front of his mobile home. A bulldozer drones in the distance, there is some clanking, and the houses have been wiped from the landscape.
“We’re in beautiful downtown Mossville,” Stacey says. “Population: 1.”
Stacey Ryan is a tall, soft-spoken man, with self-deprecating sense of humor and a four-year-old he adores, who has worked as an auto mechanic and, like many Mossville residents, in the chemical refineries. The plants provided the highest-paying jobs in the area, particularly for those without college degrees.
“The plant I worked at,” Ryan says. “They made vinyl chloride, and it’s a known carcinogen. It taxes the nervous system to where your body shuts down… It’s well-known that if you work there, it’s sort of like a tire with a nail in it. [You’ll lose air] to the point when it will take you off the face of this earth.”
Stacey Ryan says this as with the knowledge that his own health is failing. In Mossville, like many other fenceline communities around the world, residents grapple with the effects of toxic exposure which manifest in myriad ways—birth defects and miscarriages, asthma, liver disease and cancer at unheard-of rates —though these illnesses are difficult to irrefutably link to hazardous chemical plant emissions. When a sample of twenty-eight Mossville residents were tested for dioxins, a highly toxic chemical byproduct of the refinery process, the results showed that the residents had three times as much dioxin in their bloodstream as the average American. These rates were the among highest recorded in the nation. However, there’s little legal recourse for families like the Ryans who suspect their illnesses are the result of toxic exposure.
When I watched Mossville: When Great Trees Fall at the New Orleans Film Festival in 2019, I left feeling the film ought to be required viewing for everyone before they go to the ballot box, particularly in Louisiana, home of the nation’s “petrochemical corridor” and among the nation’s most toxic air.
There are casualties of our dependence on petrochemicals, the film avers, and then there is the fate of the planet. The filmmaker took pains to link this story to larger, systemic problems of inequality. The film team even travelled to another SASOL-owned plant in Secunda, South Africa. Secunda CTL is the largest coal liquification plant in the world and also the largest source of carbon dioxide on the planet. The film captures the ominous clouds of gases the compound releases into the air with soaring drone shots, and the scale of SASOL’s behemoth infrastructure lends itself to the feeling of staring down a giant.
Mid-way through the film, the filmmakers use a clip of SASOL’s suit-wearing moguls discussing their excitement over the record-breaking deal SASOL made with Louisiana’s Governor Bobby Jindal. Watching these men discuss their windfall deal sends one’s stomach in somersaults after watching boils erupt on Stacey Ryan’s face.
A South African activist in the film defines environmental racism this way: It is “the idea of disposable others—that if people have a different skin color, you can treat them as if they’re not human. They can live in the smoke. They can live in the pollution. They can be the fenceline community.”
Glustrom and his team hoped viewers would understand the film as case study of how, like Stacey’s family, many families and people around the world have been affected by the petrochemical industry.
As SASOL’s plant construction continues, we watch as Stacey takes a blowtorch to a can of Dinty Moore meat stew because his utilities have been turned off. We watch as Stacey ingeniously rigs his own plumbing, and we watch as Stacey’s health deteriorates. Despite the grim subject, the film still abounds in beauty, even if it is the insidious beauty of refineries themselves. Stacey Ryan has a dreamy look of wonder on his face as he watches the lights of the plant at night, and he describes himself, paradoxically, as being “addicted to the lights” of the refinery.
“The way that the oil and gas industry works is they provide high-paying jobs to a select few in these communities, especially folks in leadership positions, and it makes it very hard to go against the plants which are providing jobs for them,” Glustrom said. “And it creates this addiction or Stockholm syndrome where you become dependent or almost in love with your abuser.”
It is impossible not to care about Stacey Ryan as one witnesses his herculean struggle against SASOL. While the film team was happy to see Ryan being supported (Ryan received a standing ovation when he attended the film’s premiere in North Carolina), they sometimes worried that viewers failed to see the larger picture the documentary painted, one of global dependence, one of frontline communities around the world currently facing the same struggles the Ryan’s faced.
“Because this is a character-driven story, people are connected to the character, and it’s also an easy way to feel like [you’re] making change. You know, giving a hundred dollars to Stacey feels a lot more consequential than giving a hundred dollars to the Sierra Club. People want to give him money, and I understand that…They were opening their wallets to give him cash after the screening.”
Stacey Ryan needs the money people send him via PayPal to pay for his hospital bills, and yet it must be an uncomfortable position to be the haunted figure on the film’s poster. The film’s focus on Stacey Ryan’s plight was unavoidable to tell the story of Mossville, and yet it had the unintended consequence of leaving some viewers narrowly focused on the small good that could be accomplished in helping Stacey Ryan. It was a discomfort the entire film team felt. One of the film’s producers was from Mossville, too, and Glustrom explained, “He’s felt uncomfortable with the film raising money for Stacey because there are so many other people in Mossville, and there are so many other communities that are like this.”
For this reason, the film team has a new tact for bringing about environmental justice reform. Mossville: When Great Trees Fall was on tour through the Southern Circuit, which brings independent films to communities in the South, and the film is currently in talks to be picked up by PBS. Though delayed because of the coronavirus outbreak, Mossville will be screened at the Maysles Documentary Center in Harlem sometime this summer.
“At every screening that we do,” Glustrom said. “We invite a local environmental justice group, usually a community of color, that’s a fenceline community to come out and talk about how this is happening right in your own backyard because, unfortunately, in every city we play, there is a community that is suffering from some sort of similar environmental oppression.”
The film team’s new tact reminds viewers of the perfect storm of systemic racism and environmental disregard that brought about this Mossville’s razing to begin with. As Dr. Arlie Hochschild parses in Strangers in their Own Land, the state of Louisiana ends up paying polluting industries to develop with tax incentives, and the overwhelming majority of profits from the petrochemical industry leave the state entirely. The industry benefits Louisianans very little, though Louisianans like the Ryans are made to pay with their health. According the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, 2019 was a banner year for Louisiana oil and gas production. Concurrently, the Trump administration waged a staggering assault on 95 environmental protections since the election in 2017, including a of the 1972 Clean Water Act, which frees polluters to dump chemicals into wetlands and streams with greater ease. It seems like nearly suicidal, or at least dismally short-sighted that we keep drilling, extracting, and refining as usual, given what we know about the effects of the petrochemical industry on communities and the planet. If moviegoers need a visual reminder of the stakes, Mossville: When Great Trees Fall makes the real health costs of petrochemicals unmistakeable.
Joselyn Takacs is a PhD Candidate in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Southern California. She holds an MFA in fiction from Johns Hopkins University. Her writing has appeared in Narrative, Tin House, Harvard Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, DIAGRAM, Columbia: A Journal of Art and Literature, and elsewhere. She has received support from the Banff Centre for the Creative Arts, the Blue Mountain Center, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. She teaches writing at the University of Southern California and lives in Los Angeles. She is at work on a novel about the 2010 BP Oil Spill.