A Disappointing Documentary

LONDON, UK—There are few things I love more than a good documentary; when done really well, they can fascinate, compel and touch the soul. But when documentaries are done poorly they can leave a viewer wondering what was the point. “The Poison in Our Homes,” (being shown in London during the Centre for Investigative Journalism’s “Investigative Film Week” on 18 January)  is one such documentary. The conceit is intriguing and disturbing—a Romanian chemical plant in Turda, a city with a population of 60,000, was put up for a tender in 1999.  An Arab businessman (who is never named and there is never any mention by director Andrei Ciurcanu and producer Carmen Avram if they tried to contact him for an interview) won the tender for €300,000.  Said businessman then proceeded to sell off parts of the plant bit by bit. The plant was never properly decontaminated—it is unclear if there were any rules in place to deal with this when factories across Romania were privatized after the fall of Communism— and now 4.5 tonnes of mercury and 90 tonnes of other chemicals (just referred to as “dangerous pesticides”) have seeped into the ground.

There are people –adults and children—who now go to dig up scraps from the former factory to sell on the black market. And they frequently come across mercury, which they disturbing pick up and roll it around in their hands for the camera. One little boy, Ciprian, even tells the filmmakers that he put some on bread and ate it the day before (again, unclear as to why he did that—and they do not ask a follow up question). The filmmakers also say that mercury from the plant is sold on the black market from €2000 to €4000. As one man, who hunts for scraps on the factory ground, says on camera, “underground there are buckets of mercury.” A friend of his tells the filmmakers that if you are “lucky” you can get 2.5 liters of mercury in 30 minutes.

RoadNow that is fascinating and I wanted to know more—what is mercury used for these days (not thermometers, that is for sure) but again, the filmmakers did not expand upon the trade in mercury, who was buying it and where this mercury was being transported to. They did touch on the disturbing fact that the people who are digging for mercury—and handle it daily—do not believe that mercury is poisonous. “There is nothing wrong, it does not affect us,” said one mustached man.

The plant has been around for 100 years and there seems to be no moves by the government to level the buildings and stop locals from picking around in the dangerous ground. One official who was interviewed—the captions are quite amateur so it’s unclear which agency or government organization he represents—says essentially that the situation is something of a political hot potato because the businessman who bought the factory has disappeared and the government does not seem to feel it is in their remit to deal with the problem. I was also curious—and again this was never touched on—what the European Union had to say on all of this. Romania, which joined the EU along with Bulgaria in 2007, had to meet certain environmental criteria to become a member state. So why did the filmmakers never interview someone from the EU on this issue—what are their concerns in Brussels on all of this? And who else could be affected by these dangers? As this part of the world learned in Chernobyl, the wind from a contaminated factory blows in all sorts of directions.

The documentary then switch gears, talking about the people who lost their jobs and how the government did not offer them alternatives after the factory closed. But perhaps most confusing of all, the filmmakers throw in in the last five minutes of the documentary that a Transylvania highway has been built (with EU funds? Who knows—never discussed) over the contaminated land. The cost was supposed to be €40 million to decontaminate but it ended up costing around €70 million and –wait then there is some German company that said they could do it for €13 million Euros and, well, I just got lost at this point.

I think, if done well, the documentary could have had a powerful impact and gravitas. However, it just falls flat. I had more questions than answers, I was unclear who the interviewed experts and pundits were and I was left annoyed because I could see the potential and what the filmmakers were trying to do; .they just couldn’t do it.  Romanian filmmaking—at least feature films—have been doing amazingly well over the last decade. Filmmakers like Cristian Mungiu, whose film “Beyond the Hills” was featured at Lincoln Center’s “Making Waves: New Romanian Cinema” earlier this month, have been receiving global critical acclaim. But if “The Poison in Our Homes” is a reflection of the direction Romanian documentaries are going, we are in for some disappointing viewing.