By Kim Voynar

Sundance Review: THE DEVIL WE KNOW

One of the most genuinely scary films at Sundance this year, The Devil We Know shines a light on something almost all of us come in contact with:  Teflon – that magical non-stick compound found on the cookware you probably have in your kitchen right now, as well as in a lot of other places you don’t even think about, from sprays used to protect upholstery and carpets from spills and stains, to your Patagonia ski jacket – even in your dental floss.  You may recall hearing about Teflon in the news over the past few years, in relation to a class action lawsuit filed by a large group of folks who worked at DuPont or lived in areas contaminated by their factories, when DuPont knowingly dumped toxic chemicals directly into the area’s drinking water supply.

What you may not know about is the science around why C-8 is bad for humans; you probably also don’t know that studies of C-8 have found that it’s present in the blood of 99% of humans in the US.  You, and you, and you … and yes, me too – all of us have been exposed to C-8 and carry it in our blood. We didn’t sign up to have a chemical like C-8 in our blood; it was fed to us in fried eggs and pork chops cooked on non-stick skillets, a chemical condiment none of us ordered.

Producer-director Stephanie Soechtig, who previously brought us the excellent documentaries Under the Gun (about the Sandy Hook Elementary school shootings), Fed Up (about our addiction to sugar and the obesity epidemic) and Tapped (about the negative economic and environmental impact of the bottled water industry), is an exquisitely talented documentary filmmaker whose career started with producing documentaries for “20/20″ and “Primetime Live,” and all that experience shows here, with a tightly woven story full of suspense and told through the lenses of several of the West Virginia citizens on the plaintiff side of the DuPont lawsuits, as well as through excerpts of video depositions of many DuPont higher-ups.

The crux of the film, and the DuPont lawsuit it’s about, centers around the toxicity and very long half-life in humans of a nasty little chemical called C-8. Put simply, it’s the chemical that makes Teflon slick, providing the super-slipperiness that keeps your food from sticking to pans and your kids’ spills from sticking to your sofa and carpet.

Soechtig tends to have a particular point she’s guiding the audience to understand, and here she expertly steers us down a clear path through the mountains of information surrounding this complicated legal case, which center around a class-action lawsuit filed against DuPont in 2001. Soechtig constructs her own case for her film with as much care as a lawyer would put into building a case for a lawsuit, selecting compelling subjects, letting them tell their part of the story, and then weaving it all together into an intricate whole that breaks down a lot of complicated science around understanding what C-8 is and why it was bad.

It won’t surprise fans of Soechtig’s work that the other part of the task she takes on here is shining a spotlight on the greed of the execs at the top of the DuPont food chain (not surprisingly, none of them responded to interview requests). She artfully – DuPont would perhaps argue “selectively” –  uses their own words vis-a-vis video depositions from the case to  underscore how greed and arrogance played into DuPont’s decisions around the continued use and manufacturing of C-8, which they quite likely would have kept right on using and dumping had not these average folks from West Virginia taken on the corporate behemoth.

The people on whom Soechtig focuses to tell the plaintiff’s side of the story are compelling as individuals as well. There’s the crusty farmer who sold part of his farm to DuPont and subsequently documented the deaths of over 150 of his cattle and the deformities of countless calves that ultimately helped form part of the backbone of the case (one DuPont memo labels him dismissively as a “con man”).

All of these folks in this film have stories that are compelling and interesting and in some cases tragic, but as anyone who watches a lot of documentary film can tell you, a sympathetic subject (or even a class action lawsuit full of sympathetic subjects) doesn’t make a film good in and of itself, but in this case we’re in good hands. For the most part, Soechtig eschews the melodrama in which corporate expose docs sometimes overly indulge, in favor of facts, even as she leans on the human side of the story to make her case, and The Devil We Know kept the Sundance premiere audience fully riveted its duration; by two-thirds of the way through, folks around me were spontaneously applauding and talking back to the screen, which for me is a good sign that a film has struck a chord.

Soechtig again expertly weaves together all the complicated pieces and science to present a compelling case within a documentary structured like a suspense film, and by the end of it all I could think of was how many times I’ve cooked food for my kids on non-stick skillets, and about getting rid of any Teflon pans in my house post-Sundance, post-haste. Cast iron was good enough for my grandmother and now, after seeing The Devil We Know, I think it’s going to be good enough for me.

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“I find it hard to believe that it’s pure machismo. It’s too simple of a thought. I don’t know what the reason could be. I also think that it makes sense that, as time goes by, filmmaking should become more of a women-dominated activity. To me, of course, I feel like it’s going to happen. It seems to me that, especially for a certain cinema with its own language, you need to take a lot of risks. And women receive a type of education that allows much more for failure than the type men receive. It is easier for a woman to take risks than for a man. But I’ll also tell you another thing, women need to learn to master the tools, to solve technical problems, to control unscripted situations. There is also a totally macho attitude that many women have internalized in terms of not solving certain technical problems on their own. That also makes them a little less capable… Female DoPs often think that their technical area is limited to pen and paper. And that’s wrong. You need to learn a lot of things to be a good DoP. For me, machismo breeds both a masculine education and a nefarious feminine education. Macho culture engenders an education for men and another for women. The education for men we already know, and is easily criticized. And the nefarious education that machismo has for women is exemplified by women who ultimately ignore how to use tools, who—when something breaks, or when it gets dark—are rendered useless and get desperate. Women who do not even know how to build a fire. They don’t know how to deal with these situations, because these were activities that have traditionally been delegated to men. That can make us… not very… prone to achieve certain things. For me, we first have to fight against our own education, and also against an external model of erasure that has rendered women less capable than men in certain fields.”
Lucrecia Martel

“When my first book came out in 1978, and Carter was president, the top tax bracket in the US started, at that time, at one hundred thousand dollars a year; the federal income tax was 70 percent. Now, that may be excessive—I mean, it certainly was excessive—but the people who are rich now are psychotically rich. It’s stupid amounts of money that people have, and they pay no taxes! And they are allowed to make money in ways that you were not allowed to make money before. So there used to be all kinds of laws in this country. All kinds of regulations: usury laws, laws that regulated the amount of interest you were allowed to charge, bank regulations—all this kind of stuff. These were laws made by humans. They could be made again by humans. There is no reason why people should be allowed to make billions of dollars. It’s a stupid amount of money. It’s just simply stupid. And no one earns a billion dollars. You earn twelve dollars an hour. These are stupid amounts of money. No one should have them.”
~ Fran Leibowitz