“[It] doesn’t go away. It goes away politically/”
Most of us associate Agent Orange with the Vietnam War. The defoliant was used extensively in that war, both to eliminate the cover of jungle and to destroy crops. It also became a major veterans’ issue, when many veterans contracted cancers. But The People vs. Agent Orange, a documentary from Alan Adelson and Kate Taverna, show us the ways Agent Orange continues to affect life, both in Vietnam and the US.
The film touches on the use of the chemicals in the war, and briefly on the veterans’ issues involves. But a good part of the film focuses on the use of Agent Orange by the timber industry in Oregon. After clear cutting, in order to replant whole hillsides, the logging companies would spray with Agent Orange before replanting. For the wildlife and the people who lived in that area, serious health and reproductive problems followed. People organized and sought to end it, only to face intimidation. But eventually the courts ordered a stop to the use of one of the two chemicals that made up Agent Orange.
The film also focuses on the price that is still being paid in Vietnam. Because dioxin, part of Agent Orange, does not go away—either in the land or the body—Vietnam continues to have a very high rate of serious birth defects. As a result, Tran To Nga, a Vietnamese woman, is suing the manufacturers in a French court, in order to seek accountability. (The U.S. courts have not allowed such a suit.)
This film is a look at a very important issue, but it failed to create a significant emotional response in me. In part that is because so much of the film seems to be ancient history. The events in Oregon took place forty or more years ago. There are still effects, and one of the key components is still being used there, but the film doesn’t really bring the problem to the present, except with the children with deformities in Vietnam.
The film also fails to provide all the links needed to fully make its case. For example, the chemical that includes dioxin is not longer used in Oregon, but the film fails to provide sufficient evidence that the remaining chemical being used is also damaging to the environment. (I don’t doubt it is, but the film doesn’t prove it.)
Because it is so much based in the past, the film can’t really serve as a call to arms against an injustice. Nga’s attempt to hold companies accountable is a noble effort, but it’s not really something we can get behind. The real problem, which the film doesn’t really get into, is an overall inability to hold companies liable for the harm they do. This is really a political issue as much as a legal one. That is an area that people can seek change. But that’s not where the film leads us.
The People vs. Agent Orange is available via virtual cinema through local theaters.