The Hot Docs Canadian Intl. Documentary Festival marked its long-awaited return to cinemas last night, opening its 29th edition in the historic Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema with the world premiere of Canadian filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal’s “Into the Weeds: Dewayne ‘Lee’ Johnson vs. Monsanto Company.”
Johnson, a former school groundskeeper, was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2014, and became the first plaintiff and also the public face of a mass tort against the agrochemical corporation that manufactures the common weed-killer Roundup, which contains an active ingredient called glyphosate—a non-selective herbicide used in forestry, agriculture and backyards.
While tracing his story, the film expands its scope to examine this common product’s impact on human health and the environment, and the global repercussions of the trial, through interviews with plaintiffs and data experts, verité scenes, and often-riveting trial footage of attorney R. Brent Wisner—who has obtained two huge verdicts against Monsanto—in action.
Johnson, who attended last night’s sold-out screening with several film participants (including his wife Araceli; key lawyers in the Roundup litigation; farmer Garry Gadd; and Traditional Ecological Knowledge elder Ray Owl), elicited warm laughter when he told the audience that he initially had “no motivation to do another interview” when approached about the film; he was “burned out,” he said, from the widespread media attention he’d received throughout the trial.
Encouraged to reconsider by American investigative journalist Carey Gillam, author of the recently published “The Monsanto Papers” and a valuable story consultant on the film, Johnson was invited to a San Francisco screening of Baichwal’s 2018 documentary “Anthropocene: The Human Epoch,” the third in a trilogy of acclaimed, visually impactful films she made with Nicholas de Pencier and Edward Burtynsky about the impact of humans on natural development. (The others are “Manufactured Landscapes” and “Watermark.”)
“The film was incredible. That’s when I knew that I was in good hands, you know—these are people who know what they are doing,” said Johnson.
In an interview last week, Baichwal told Variety that she first learned about the David-vs.-Goliath trial and Johnson’s bellwether role in it from Robert Kennedy Jr. at the 2019 Sundance festival. She knew she and producer and DOP de Pencier had to jump on it immediately, as the landmark verdict had only recently come down.
“I met with the multi-district litigation executive group, who are all in the film, and asked if they were interested in doing this film together,” she said. “And then we talked to Lee, who is a quiet guy who was sort of thrust into this. Yet he knew he had a duty. I’m still astonished at how much he opened up in telling his story.”
The vastness and scope of the work associated with the Roundup litigation, not to mention the matter-of-fact eloquence of the legal team leading it, provided compelling raw material for the filmmakers to explain, compellingly, such concepts as mass torts and agency capture as part the narrative.
“They say mass torte is the working person’s key to the court house and it’s true,” Baichwal says. “The unbelievable complexity of the science that they not only have to digest but also explain to a jury that’s not full of PhD scientists—they’re fighting the good fight. But at the same time, when it’s only money damages for the corporations, when there’s no criminal conviction, it is not going to stop.”
At last night’s screening, renowned environmental and consumer-class-action attorney Robin Greenwald, a co-lead council in the Roundup litigation, said it was one of the worst she’s seen, with underhanded tactics to try and pit lawyers against each other: “Mass torts exist because corporations hurt so many people, and so when you have a hundred thousand plus people, as in this one, the courts consolidate claims in one place. And the hope is that there can be a global resolution for everybody.”
Greenwald said that films like Alex Gibney’s “Crime of the Century” and “Into the Weeds” open people’s eyes to the power and influence huge corporations have over government agencies. “So maybe documentary filmmakers need to follow us more often and let the world know because otherwise, like, who follows lawyers? We’re boring!” she said, getting a laugh. “So (filmmakers) bring things to light in a way that we can’t always do.”
“Into the Weeds,” the announcement of which was kept under wraps until a week before Hot Docs, now launches onto the festival circuit and markets. “Due to the delicate subject matter, we did not pursue wide festival solicitation,” Sphere Films’ Anick Poirier and Lorne Price told Variety last week. “Now that the film has launched, we are receiving requests and will ramp up submissions.”
Sphere Films (formerly WaZabi Films) has worldwide sales rights (excluding Canada) and will be selling the film at the upcoming Cannes Film Market.
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