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‘The People Vs. Agent Orange’ on PBS: The documentary as social conscience | COMMENTARY

Tran To Nga, a 78-year-old former North Vietnamese journalist, waves as she delivers a speech during a gathering in support of people exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, in Paris, Jan. 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)
Tran To Nga, a 78-year-old former North Vietnamese journalist, waves as she delivers a speech during a gathering in support of people exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, in Paris, Jan. 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus) (Thibault Camus/AP)

From the jungles of Vietnam in the 1960s to rural Oregon in the ‘70s, Agent Orange burned horrific paths of death and destruction. In terms of birth defects and deformities, think Hiroshima. In terms of rolling hills of green turned to charred hellscapes, think of the worst aftermath of a forest fire that you have ever seen — and then multiply it by the exponential power of toxins associated with this herbicide to live in lakes and underground water supplies poisoning generation after generation.

And yet even though many continue to suffer to this day from the fallout created by chemical companies and the American government recklessly loosing this herbicide from hell on the world, no one has been held accountable. No one.

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That injustice is addressed with clarity, passion and power in “The People vs. Agent Orange,” the final documentary this season in the long-running PBS “Independent Lens” series. It premieres Monday at 10 p.m. on MPT.

This 90-minute film reminded me of why I have had a lifetime love affair with documentaries that has only grown stronger in recent years as the genre has expanded and much of longform journalism has contracted particularly at the level of magazines and local newspapers. Many of us in the newspaper business still consider it our job to speak truth to power and do so on a regular basis. But we seldom get the time or have the resources to do it at the depth that an independent filmmaker can. And as much as many of us are attracted to journalism because of its ability to expose corruption and injustice, seeking social justice seems to be part of the very DNA of the many documentary filmmakers I have come to know and admire over the years.

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The team of Alan Adelson (director, producer and writer), Kate Taverna (director, producer and editor) and Véronique Bernard (producer and writer) make viewers care about the lack of accountability on the part of governments and chemical companies by focusing on two extraordinary women who are victims of the defoliant and crusaders for justice in connection with it.

Using French attorneys and courts, French-Vietnamese author and activist Tran To Nga has spent seven years building a case against the companies that manufactured the chemical that resulted in the death of her first child and the ongoing serious illnesses of her other children and their descendants. She herself suffers from cancer likely caused by exposure as a teenager in the 1960s to Agent Orange sprayed by American planes. Her case is seen by legal experts quoted in the film as the last best chance to hold corporations like the Dow Chemical Company and Monsanto Company responsible for the deadly product.

American activist and author Carol Van Strum has been battling the timber industry and government officials in Oregon since the 1970s when helicopters starting spraying Agent Orange as part of an operation to clear vegetation so that more trees could be planted for harvesting by the companies. The toxic herbicide drifted onto her land, house and the creeks and rivers where her children played. Her children became sick and some of her animals died. Fish, waterfowl and deer gave birth to horribly deformed creatures, she says, as the screen fills with images of some.

“No one knew what they were spraying,” she says in the film, trying to explain the community’s initial acceptance. “Well, it’s the government, it must be OK.”

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She doesn’t think that way any more after four decades of battling the powers that be as they tried to hide the horror and death caused by Agent Orange.

One of Van Strum’s ways of fighting back as a community advocate against the intimidating practices of the companies and the lack of oversight by government agencies was to relentlessly gather, often through Freedom of Information filings, documents, memos, correspondence, studies and research on the toxins being sprayed and the efforts by the companies to keep the dangers from the public. Many of the documents she had gathered over the years and stored in boxes and stacks of paper in what appears to be virtually every room of her house have now been scanned, digitized and saved for posterity in collections like “The Poison Papers” from the Bioscience Resource Project and The Center for Media and Democracy.

Van Strum’s detective work and Nga’s legal campaign provide the film’s drama, which is deepened as the filmmakers skillfully weave in the kind of biographical details that make it hard not to root for these two.

Nga came from four generations of women who were imprisoned for their resistance to 100 years of French colonization and then the arrival of American military advisers in the 1950s. Nga was being used as a messenger for the North Vietnamese resistance by the age of 8. She spent her teen years living and working in the forest and around the Ho Chi Minh Trail which was saturated with Agent Orange by American planes.

She was married and gave birth to her first child in 1968. Days after the birth, her daughter’s skin started fall off in pieces, according to Nga. The child had difficulty breathing and suffered from a badly damaged heart before dying.

“I always blamed myself thinking I was the reason for her illness and the cause of her death,” Nga says in the film. “I carried that guilt for more than 40 years, until I understood what killed my daughter was the poison, Agent Orange.”

Van Strum’s four children were killed in a house fire that she believes was set by people who had come onto her land and threatened her family because of her activism.

“They had done the absolute worst thing anybody could do to me, and they couldn’t do any more,” she says of the fire and her lifetime struggle of activism. “In a way, it was in honor of my kids that I had to keep going. They fought this thing, too. It wasn’t just me. The only way was to keep going for their sake.”

The filmmakers bring in legal, military and scientific experts who are unequivocal in the need for history to be clear about the evil done with Agent Orange by the military industrial complex, which was running virtually without guards rails during the 1950s, ‘60s and early ‘70s. The expert testimony about the crimes and cover-ups is compelling.

But it is the grit, grace and courage of Nga and Van Strum that stay with you after the credits roll.

Even though she has cancer and acknowledges that time is running out, Nga says near the end of the film that there is plenty “of fight left” in her.

Quoting her attorney who called Agent Orange the “ancestor of all pesticides,” Nga says, “If we allow Agent Orange to be forgotten, then the tragedy of pesticides will continue.”

Our last image of her in the film shows Nga marching with Agent Orange victims, families and supporters in Ho Chi Minh City: Her truth goes marching on.

The last image of Van Strum is a high overhead shot showing her walking across the patch of Oregon land on which she has stood her ground even after it was poisoned by Agent Orange and darkened by the fire that took her children: Like a tree standing by the water, she shall not be moved.

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David Zurawik is The Baltimore Sun’s media critic. Email: david.zurawik@baltsun.com; Twitter:@davidzurawik.

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