PBS Premiere: July 23, 2002Check the broadcast schedule »

Filmmaker Interview

Slawomir Grünberg, Director

POV: What is your motivation as a filmmaker? Why did you choose documentary in this case?

Slawomir Grünberg: For me, the camera is a vehicle that allows me access to certain life experiences I normally wouldn't have access to. It opens people up, and grants me a unique intimacy with my subjects. My immigration from Poland to the U.S. over 20 years ago gives me a special curiosity about this country, and a different perspective on people and their lives. My philosophy for making films is to submerge myself into the lives of my subjects - to develop a relationship with them based on trust and understanding. My goal is to share with the viewer this intimacy with my subjects, and to take the viewer somewhere he or she has never been before. I believe that most of the conflicts results from lack of communication between people. I would like my camera to show and listen to both sides of the issues. After all, we need more knowledge and understanding of each other in order to make the world a better place to live. It is my small way of changing the world and I think the documentary is an ideal tool to do so.

POV: What generally inspires your interest?

Grünberg: Human suffering, injustice and a simple curiosity are the typical motivations for the documentaries I am interested in developing.

POV: What inspired you to make Fenceline?

Grünberg: Over eight years ago I traveled throughout the Louisiana back roads and went to visit the San Francisco plantation. While walking through this pocket of American history my attention was diverted by a heavy chemical smell, coming from an unknown source. Soon after, my curiosity was fulfilled as I drove along the Mississippi river and found myself surrounded by the chemical, oil and other industries built along the delta between New Orleans and Baton Rouge - an area later described to me as "Cancer Alley." This was also when I discovered that pockets of poor African-American communities live in this heavily industrialized area. Several years later I met a family, a young couple from Baton Rouge, who studied there and whose baby would periodically get sick on the same day each month - they suspected this was an indication of regular chemical releases by the plant. Finally an article in Time Magazine in 1999 put together all the bits of information I had about Cancer Alley, and solidified my interest in this story.

POV: What were your goals in making"Fenceline? And what would you like to see happen with it?

Grünberg: My main goal in making this documentary was to bring all the conflicting communities closer together. Lack of sensitivity by the industry, fear of unknown by the African - American community and a general lack of trust in each other were the main reasons why the different parties involved in this story became divided. I hope this film will somehow lead to a solution for the existing conflict. I also hope that it will facilitate all sides in a productive discussion, which will look for solutions rather then open old wounds. I would like this film to be shown at the public meetings organized both by the local communities and the industry. I strongly believe that this film is a perfect tool for outreach activities.

POV: What was the most surprising thing to you in making Fenceline?

Grünberg: The extent to which the white and black communities of Norco didn't trust and understand each other was the most surprising realization I had while working on this film.

POV: What are you currently working on or what would you like to be working on?

Grünberg: Among several projects I am currently working on is Borderline, a documentary that tells the story of Eunice Baker, a "borderline" mentally retarded woman who is serving 15 years to life in prison for the murder of a three year-old child. The defense claims that a short in the thermostat's circuitry caused the sweltering heat inside the home and that Charlotte died because Eunice did not realize the child was in any danger, due to her limited cognitive capacity. Borderline looks closely at the problem of how mentally handicapped individuals are treated by the legal system across the nation and especially in rural communities and small towns. It raises the question of whether the legal system, which presupposes a mentally competent defendant, is prepared and able to protect the rights of mentally disabled people, who often readily admit to crimes they have not committed due to an inability to properly understand their Miranda rights. The story takes place in a community near where I live.


Jane Greenberg, Producer

POV: Can you explain how the idea for Fenceline came about and the research you did at the start of the project?

Greenberg: The idea for the film first came from an article in "Time" magazine on corporate welfare, which named Louisiana as first in the nation for offering tax incentives to big industries to lure them to the state. And the policy was really successful and big industries moved into Louisiana and brought with them jobs, and it also brought staggering amounts of pollution. And the jobs were filled by an educated workforce and low income minority communities were forced to bear the brunt of the pollution. And as I researched I learned of a growing movement called the environmental justice movement, which is a combination of the civil rights movement and the environmental movement. And it focuses on how low income minority communities are disproportionately exposed to pollution. So we wanted to find a town to profile that would illustrate this phenomenon and look at how it affected people on a personal level.

POV: What drew you to the Diamond community?

Greenberg: We started out by visiting communities along the industrial corridor — this stretch of land with lots of industry. And basically we were just knocking on people's doors and asking them about their experiences living in the shadow of big industry. And their stories were shocking and remarkably similar. People talked about the noise and the smell and the accidental releases from the industry. And they talked about the lack of job opportunities, but mostly they talked about health problems. And we heard over and over again stories of spontaneous nosebleeds and mysterious skin rashes. We heard a lot about respiratory illness and a lot about cancer. And we could have made this film in any one of those communities, but we chose Norco because there was an active issue going on. There had been a struggle by the African-American community to be relocated for many years. And this struggle was coming to a head and so that helped to make the decision as to which town to profile.

POV: How did you build up trust with the Norco residents?

Greenberg: We approached our characters in more or less the same way. We explained that we were making a documentary about Norco and we wanted to know how industry impacted the community. And everybody in Norco knew there was a controversy and most people had a very strong opinion about it. And people were eager to represent themselves and defend their own positions.

When we first met Margie — who is the main character in the African-American community — she told us that she had a dream and her dream was to go to Holland... [to] go to Dutch Royal (which is the headquarters for Shell) and to tell the head people at Dutch Royal what was happening in her community. And it was quite amazing that she actually had this opportunity. Here is a woman whose ancestors were slaves. She has grown up in an oppressed community and she has struggled for years and years and not given up. And she travels out of the country and she presents her story to a group of officials from Shell and gives them a bag of air that she's taken from her community and tells the people about the suffering of her community. And that moment was a profound moment not only for Margie, I think for almost everyone in that room. I think it symbolizes a certain success that the film has and the level of success for the African-American community.