Jennifer Baichwal tackles Monsanto case in new doc

Filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal is shown during an interview with The Canadian Press in Toronto on Tuesday, April 21, 2009. Her latest documentary “Into the Weeds” opens this year’s Hot Docs fest. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

TORONTO – After directing and producing a film as expansive as 2018’s “Anthropocene: The Human Epoch,” which spanned six continents and 20 countries in an examination of the human impact on the planet, one might consider taking a break. A vacation, even. But not Jennifer Baichwal.

Instead, the award-winning Toronto-based filmmaker decided to board another hefty project analyzing the systemic repercussions of an environmental crisis.

It revolved around a monumental legal battle to hold agrochemical giant Monsanto to account for its decades-long use of the controversial glyphosate-based herbicide Roundup, everywhere from industrial farms to golf courses to suburban homes.

The project had been in search of a director while she was at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival promoting “Anthropocene” with husband and cinematographer Nicholas de Pencier.

As some scientists found links to carcinogenic properties, the company disputed their research, saying studies have long established that glyphosate is safe.

Under Baichwal’s hand, the story would become “Into the Weeds,” her second film to open the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival Thursday in Toronto after 2009’s “Act of God.”

“I said to Nick, ‘I can’t not do it,'” recalls Baichwal in an interview from her Toronto home.

From there, production was a whirlwind and not without its obstacles: the COVID-19 pandemic hit early on, and there were countless story elements to consider, including the science, the law and, of course, the heart.

That emotional core comes in the form of Dewayne “Lee” Johnson, a former California groundskeeper who became the face of the case when his lawsuit, which alleged — similar to thousands of others — that his exposure to Roundup led to his diagnosis of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, became the first to go to trial.

In August 2018, Monsanto was ordered to pay $289 million in damages, which was reduced to $79 million two months later, and while the company appealed the decision, it ultimately lost the case.

Monsanto, which was acquired by chemical company Bayer that September, maintains that its products do not cause cancer.

In the film, Johnson recalls the liquid soaking through his PPE one fateful day at work (after being told it was “safe enough to drink”), and presents his rigorous daily routine.

Each morning, the documentary sees him shedding dead skin out of his socks, his white sheets covered in flakes and blood stains, while the sound of his every move is punctuated with an audible crunch thanks to the countless rashes decorating his body since the day he was exposed.

“There are moments that are quite hard to look at,” says Baichwal.

“Lee asked us to film that because he wanted people to see that’s what he has to do just to get outside.

“He wanted this story to be told, not for his own glory in any way, but because (he wants) the herbicide label to be changed and people to be warned.

“It was a collaboration, as it is with any filmmaker and subject, but this one has been particularly moving and meaningful.”

In order to tell a comprehensive and cohesive story, with every argument and claim thoroughly backed by evidence, Baichwal decided to use Lee’s trial as a framing device.

But understanding the science of it all herself and then translating it into a digestible documentary was far from a simple process.

While her other documentaries have tended to lean more toward the abstract and the existential, “Into the Weeds” follows a more traditional format. Never one for a “prescribed” form of researching and storytelling, the complexities of the Monsanto case are what excited Baichwal.

Delving into it, as with her other projects, she began by making her subjects her priority.

“You can’t just assume that you can go somewhere and have anything meaningful to say about a place or a situation without building relationships first,” she says.

“I have to understand (their story), and that requires humility, time and the ethics of engagement.”

Cementing meaningful bonds has long been the case when it comes to her co-workers as well, including “patient as ever” editors David Wharnsby and Roland Schlimme, who have been working alongside Baichwal for nearly 30 years, along with cinematographer John Price.

De Pencier, too, has remained a trusted producer and partner, naturally.

“I don’t think our marriage got in trouble during this one,” says Baichwal with a chuckle. “We spend a lot of time together, we sometimes don’t know how to turn off and not work.”

But, she adds, she’s been going through something of a “three-quarter life crisis” that’s had her thinking that perhaps, now having completed her milestone 10th film 25 years into her career, it may be time to step aside and let younger filmmakers take some of the spotlight.

“Nick’s really good about saying, ‘Do whatever it is that is going to make you happy and fulfilled. If you just want to knit for the rest of your life, you can do that. If you want to make 10 more films, I’ll stand by you.’ That’s the best kind of partner to have.”

Even if Baichwal does indeed choose to swap her camera for a pair of knitting needles, she’s not about to part ways with the environmental activist inside her.

It’s why she hopes audiences will walk away from “Into the Weeds” while “looking at both their own practices, and then seeing the bigger picture of how we’ve allowed things to get to this point, both in terms of corporate power and the way we manipulate nature to our own ends.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 27, 2022.

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