Mossville is a small community in Louisiana made up of a little more than 8,000 residents, the great majority of which are descendants of the free blacks who founded the town in the 19th century. A tight-knit community rich of a powerful past whose values and stories are proudly transmitted to the younger generations. Or rather, that’s what it was – up until the chemical company Sasol started to install petrochemical plants in the area.
Mossville: When Great Trees Fall tells the struggle of Mossville’s residents against this quasi-unstoppable force of industrialization that takes away their homes, pollutes their air and water, and destroys their bodies.
Stacey Ryan is the main protagonist of the documentary, and the only resident left in the construction zone. His modest trailer and patch of land is the last fort against the cranes and towers that loom above it, only steps away. Sewers, water, electricity – all has been denied to him to push him towards selling, but he keeps his ground for the sake of his family past and present.
In a poignant scene, Stacey plays for the camera a videotape his parents had recorded before they both passed away from cancer. The recording is a testimony to the slow, painful killing of everyone living near the plants: in it, Stacey’s mother lists the family members who are suffering or died early from cancer or related diseases.
Stacey too is suffering, but he continues the fight started by his elders. This connection to ancestry is a crucial part of Mossville, and what makes its destruction devastating.
When Erica Jackson, another resident, shows the camera her family pictures, each ones tell a rich story – with the preservation of the community at the heart of it. Mossville was a safe haven for black families looking for a place to be free after the abolition of slavery, a long struggle against racism that still rings true today in more ways than one, Sasol having been originally created in South Africa for the Apartheid government. The targeting of black communities by the company, both in South Africa and the United States, reveals yet another ugly facet of racism.
Alexander Glustrom (“Big Charity: The Death of America’s Oldest Hospital”) is the triple-threat behind the film as director, editor and director of photography. His cinematography is especially breathtaking, the documentary making great use of the ominous towers and toxic fumes so close to the town’s pastoral qualities. The contrast is arresting, and each superimposition of the two is a reminder of the danger and urgency of the issue at hand.
Mossville: When Great Trees Fall puts the spotlight on environmental crimes and most specifically environmental racism, when those injustices are committed against ethnic minorities. It does it with intelligence and empathy, carrying and preserving pieces of Mossville’s history, its residents and their fight in hope of inspiring others to not let it happen again.
MOSSVILLE: When Great Trees Fall opens virtually in theaters in New York on May 7 through the Maysles Documentary Center, and in Los Angeles on May 8 through the Laemmle Theaters. Select screenings will be followed by a Q&A with filmmakers. Additional participating theaters include Milwaukee Film Sofa Theater (Milwaukee, WI), Smith Rafael Film Center (Marin County, CA), Grail Moviehouse (Asheville, NC), Frida Cinema (Santa Ana, CA), Broad Theater (New Orleans, LA) and Tampa Theatre (Tampa, FL). Please check the MOSSVILLE website for more information on theaters and Q&As: http://www.mossvilleproject.com/screenings