By Kim Voynar Voynar@moviecitynews.com

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 had this friend who was my roommate for a while. She seemed really normal in every way except that she wouldn’t buy shampoo. She would only use my shampoo. And after a year it’s like, “When are you going to buy your own shampoo?” It was her way of digging in her heels. It was a certain sense of entitlement, or a certain anger. It was so interesting to me why she wouldn’t buy her own fucking shampoo. It was like,“I’m gonna use yours.” It was coming from a place of “You have more money than me, I just know it”—whether I did or I didn’t. Or maybe she felt, “You have a better life than me,” or “You have a better room than me in the apartment.” It was hostile. And she was a really close friend! There was never any other shampoo and I knew she was washing her hair. And clearly I have a thing about shampoo, as we see in ‘Friends with Money.’ I had some nice shampoo. So I found that psychologically so interesting how a person can function normally in every way and yet have this aberrance—it’s like a skip in the record. It was a sense of entitlement, I think. I put that in Olivia’s character, too, with her stealing someone’s face cream.”
Nicole Holofcener

“When books become a thing, they can no longer be fine.

“Literary people get mad at Knausgård the same way they get mad at Jonathan Franzen, a writer who, if I’m being honest, might be fine. I’m rarely honest about Jonathan Franzen. He’s an extremely annoying manI have only read bits and pieces of his novels, and while I’ve stopped reading many novels even though they were pretty good or great, I have always stopped reading Jonathan Franzen’s novels because I thought they were aggressively boring and dumb and smug. But why do I think this? I didn’t read him when he was a new interesting writer who wrote a couple of weird books and then hit it big with ‘The Corrections,’ a moment in which I might have picked him up with curiosity and read with an open mind; I only noticed him once, after David Foster Wallace had died, he became the heir apparent for the Great American Novelist position, once he had had that thing with Oprah and started giving interviews in which he said all manner of dumb shit; I only noticed him well after I had been told he was An Important Writer.

“So I can’t and shouldn’t pretend that I am unmoved by the lazily-satisfied gentle arrogance he projects or when he is given license to project it by the has-the-whole-world-gone-crazy development of him being constantly crowned and re-crowned as Is He The Great American Writer. What I really object to is this, and if there’s anything to his writing beyond it, I can’t see it and can’t be bothered. Others read him and tell me he’s actually a good writer—people whose critical instincts I have learned to respect—so I feel sure that he’s probably a perfectly fine, that his books are fine, and that probably even his stupid goddamned bird essays are probably also fine.

“But it’s too late. He has become a thing; he can’t be fine.”
~ Aaron Bady