Blue Vinyl marks Judith Helfand’s return to Sundance (her previous film, A Healthy Baby Girl was shown in 1997). Daniel B. Gold has produced, directed, and edited several short films and has won several awards, including the Excellence in Cinematography Award for Blue Vinyl here at Sundance.
PK: Describe how you came across the idea to make this documentary.
Sundance 2002 Coverage
Five Days at Sundance 2002: a festival overview
23 Capsules: Sundance 2002 capsule reviews
Mark Borchardt and Mike Schank: an interview with lovable subjects of American Movie, both working in new films showing at Sundance 2002
JH: It all started in front of my parents’ house in Long Island when my parents decided to re-side the red wooden house that I had grown up in and lived in for years with blue vinyl. At that moment I was four-and-a-half-years post-cancer and post-hysterectomy because of DES exposure. I had been chronicling my experience with cancer and really exploring the long-term impact of chemical exposure on my life and my relationship with my mother over that four-and-a-half period of time, which turned into a film called A Healthy Baby Girl that had its premiere here at Sundance in 1997. Over that four-and-a-half year period I had been filming, filming, filming and collecting all this footage and then my father one day told me off-handedly “oh, next week we’re going to take this red wood off and put up this blue vinyl, I got a great deal.”
I was aghast for two reasons, one: it was tacky and I didn’t want plastic on our house but, more importantly, he was ruining the continuity (of the film) because I hadn’t shot exteriors. But they wouldn’t listen to me and I had no recourse… and putting the vinyl on the house wraps up the end of A Healthy Baby Girl. Little did I know that I was wrapping one toxic story with another. I didn’t find out how toxic the vinyl was until 1997, when A Healthy Baby Girl was on POV and having its television debut.
I went on this “toxic tour” with the film, to shed light on other chemical exposure problems that other communities were having around the country, and I wound up in Lake Charles, Louisiana, the vinyl capital of America. As these people were watching A Healthy Baby Girl and literally watching my parents put the blue vinyl siding on the house, I found out that my dad’s answer to rotting wood was the source of some serious health problems starting right there at the fence line where they make the vinyl. I went home, embarrassed, a little alarmed, a little ashamed, and I asked my dad “if you had known this - would you still have put it on the house?” And he said, “Well, I hope not, but they didn’t write that stuff on the box.” At that point I called up Dan Gold.
DBG: She said “let’s make this film together,” and I said “well, I really want to shoot it but I don’t know if I can drop everything else and do this.” Partly because of the way my career was going, things were already very busy. Partly because I wasn’t entirely convinced that the world needed another documentary about poisons and other toxins. My pivotal moment came when we were in Italy interviewing (the late) Dr. (Ceasare) Maltoni, who’s in the film and one of the original researchers who found out how carcinogenic vinyl chloride was to laboratory animals. At that point he said this was definitely predictive of what was going to happen to humans and he just started ranting and raving about the tens of thousands, maybe 75,000 chemicals that are out in the market place that aren’t being studied. There’s this lack of control that we all have over knowing what’s in the air we breathe, what’s in the food we’re eating, how it gets there. It was at that point that I realized this really was an important film to make because, while we’re using vinyl as the vehicle to tell the story, it’s a much larger story.