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Runoff: A Must See Film at This Week's Woodstock Film Festival

This Anti-Erin Brokovich Environmental Film Begs the Question: What to Do When the Evil Corporate Goliath is Really a Lot of Little David Worker Bees Polluting the Hive Together?


An opening scene in writer/director Kimberly Levin's film “Runoff” has the appealing farm-mom character, Betty Freeman (played by actress Joanne Kelly, pictured above), in a bucolic country field, delicately wafting smoke on a bee colony, a technique used to subdue bees so you can safely harvest the honey in the hive. Just as Kimberly is calming the bees with smoke, a small, innocuous looking crop duster quietly sprays pesticides on a nearby farm field, just like it always does in this small, unnamed farm region which could be anywhere in rural America.

The bee tending scene intercut with shots of the harmless looking crop duster are clearly metaphors for our collective society, one which has been lulled into a kind of sleepy disregard for the dangers of the ubiquitous toxins and poisons used widely in agriculture. These toxins, like glyphosate in Roundup weedkiller and the herbicide 2,4-D, are both also used in common lawn and garden products which pervade our entire ecosystem all the way down to the cells of our bodies. These neurotoxins are also thought to be the cause of colony collapse disorder, the latter being a nice way of saying - all the bees are dying.

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A Production Picture From The Film Runoff

NRDC Senior Scientist Dr. Gina Solomon said of the World War II-era toxic weed killer ingredient called 2,4-D, an ingredient in Agent Orange: “This dangerous pesticide is lurking all over the place – from ball fields and golf courses, to front lawns and farms – exposing an enormous amount of the American public to cancer and other serious health risks.”

Indeed it is us, humans, that are killing the bees, just like it is human action that is causing climate change. What's disturbing about the film “Runoff” is that the deadly herbicides and pesticides we should all be afraid of are sold by nice neighbors and friendly farm family, Betty Freeman and her husband, Frank (played by Neal Huff), the main characters in the film. The Freemans put a real, appealing face on the often-depicted faceless corporations like Monsanto at which we point our collective fingers of blame while acting as if “we” are not part of the problem.

As “Runoff” unfolds, we learn farm dad Neal is sick with an illness not specified. It's not hard to draw the obvious conclusion that perhaps Neal is sick from the toxic brew he peddles to the local farmers who accept it willingly, without fear, as simple working folk just trying to support their family.


Joanne Kelly and Neal Huff in Runoff

The Freemans are depicted as a nice, ordinary family, just trying to get by, like the rest of us, doing what's necessary to eek out a living and pay the mortgage. Part of the family story revolves around the Freemans sensitive, artistic son, Finley (played by Alex Shaffer), who dreams of leaving the small farm in rural America to attend art school in New York. At one point in the film, his father, angry at his own illness and financial woes, lashes out at his son while he is drawing and tells him that while his drawings are well done, his art is not real. Indeed, the Freemans facade of a stable, healthy family life is not real either and breaking this illusion as well the pretense that widespread use of pesticides and herbicides is safe is the heart and essence of this film.

Because of a deadly decision Betty Freeman makes in the film to try and save her family from financial ruin, “Runoff” might also be called “An Uncivil Action”, referencing “A Civil Action”, the 1998 American film starring John Travolta. In “A Civil Action” Travolta and a scrappy team of small town, do-good lawyers fight a large corporation over environmental pollution. In “Runoff”, Betty Freeman's actions take on the evil face of a polluting conglomerate such as the ones depicted in “A Civil Action”. Based on a true story, “A Civil Action” revolves around the issue of the industrial solvent trichloroethylene which contaminated a local aquifer, appearing to have caused fatal cases of leukemia and cancer, and a wide variety of other health problems among the citizens of Woburn, Massachusetts.

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A Production Picture from the Film Runoff

What do I like most about “Runoff”? It is not your typical environmental film. No David vs Goliath, no unassuming protagonist inspired to battle a powerful adversary for environmental justice a la “Erin Brokovich” or “A Civil Action.” In these films it's easy to choose a side and recognize the right from wrong. “Runoff” blurs the line regarding right and wrong to the point where we all are challenged to question business as usual and consider our complicity in poisoning our own environment.

“Runoff” takes the concept of evil corporate polluters and switches it on its head. The desperate mother willing to do anything to save her family farm from foreclosure becomes the practitioner of evil doing. Suddenly, there is a recognizable, human face, not the faceles corporation, to blame for our woes.

The most disturbing thing for me about watching “Runoff” is it makes me want to agree with the idea of corporate personhood, a term made popular as result of the U.S. Supreme Court 2010 ruling, Citizens United v F.E.C., which allowed unlimited corporate and union spending on political issues. Post ruling, Mitt Romney said “Corporations are People, my friend.” “Runoff” moves me to consider that perhaps there is some truth to that statement. After all, everyone loves to hate companies like Monsanto, but Monsanto has 22,000 employees around the world. Are none of these people complicit in the company's actions?

In a similar vein, the giant chemical company Dow, one of the purveyors of 2,4-D and makers of Agent Orange, sells products in 160 countries and has 10,000 plus worldwide employees. Aren't these people responsible for what the company does?

It's easy to point the finger of blame from a distance at faceless corporations or the few executives at the top. “Runoff” demonstrates that perhaps life is not that simple.

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A Production Picture From the Film Runoff

In the end, all I can think about after seeing “Runoff” is maybe, when it suits them, that "People Are Corporations too, my friend”. People sometimes act with shielded self interest that suits them even if they know their actions hurt others and the environment. They justify their actions and behavior with the excuse they are only protecting themselves and their family, creating a corporate-like right that transcends liability and the notion of personal right or wrong.

Underneath the beautiful cinematography and languid rumination on a likable family getting caught between a rock and hard place, what “Runoff” is really about is the notion that there is a heart of darkness inside all of us, if the right circumstances test our humanity. We are never going to stop "evil corporations" from doing wrong if so many thousands, if not millions of us working for them, or buying their products go along for the ride, rationalizing everything by saying we have no choice because we all have to operate within the system and put bread on the table.

Don't get me wrong, I am not offering any solutions to this quandry. Neither does “Runoff.” Many of us are trapped in a conundrum of surviving on a minefield of right and wrong. The farm family in “Runoff” is ironically called the Freemans, an incongruity I am sure writer Kimberly Levin intended us to see. Like many in America, and the rest of the world, the characters in “Runoff” are clearly not free in any sense of the word.

But, then again, maybe the Freemans are free. Aren't we are all trapped in our own freedom? As philosopher Jean Paul Sarte so profoundly expressed: Je suis condamné à être libre. (I am condemned to be free.)

Copyright 2014 Paul E McGinniss

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