ARICA Review Filmuphoria: “A dirty affair **** “

Milka in front of her daughter’s grave.
Milka in front of her daughter’s grave.

“Farming, hospitals and households all create toxic waste, not to mention industry in general. But how can we safely dispose of this pollution and prevent it from ending up in the ground, water supply – or even the air we breathe?.

In 1984 Swedish mining conglomerate Boliden started shipping their toxic detritus to Chile. The mammoth smelting factory of Skelleftea created arsenic, lead and mercury and all this was dumped in the northern town of Arica. Thousands of local people, particularly children, went on to suffer cancer, birth defects and neurological complaints unaware of the danger.

This new documentary from William Johansson Kalén and Lars Edman screening at this year’s IDFA (the world’s largest documentary festival) aims to raise awareness of the scandal in the hope that governments will take note. Edman (born in Chile but adopted after a few months by a Swedish couple) and his co-director had previously collaborated  on a 2009 case study Toxic Playground which formed the basis for their full length study and featured a certain Rolf Svedberg, a former director of Boliden had worked on the project, and would feature again in Arica, the second instalment which chronicles the court case brought against Boliden by the Chilean survivors, that began in the Autumn of 2017 in Hovrättan, Rönnskörr near the site of Boliden.

The main defence of the Boliden lawyers was to put all the fault on the shoulders of the Chilean company Promel, who was supposed to dispose of the toxic waste and was paid just under a million pounds Sterling to do so. But the toxic sludge was mainly dumped on what is euphemistically called “Sitio F”, a few hundred yards away from Sica Sica, were the majority of the 796 affected inhabitants lived with their kids who built sandcastles on the site.

At first no barriers were built to protect them from biohazard – although these came much later. One of the witnesses for the Chilean plaintiffs was Professor Jonas Ebbesson, a specialist in environmental law. He accused Boliden of negligence, and explained why the Chilean victims asked for compensation of 10 Million Euros. As it turned out, this was half the amount Boliden had spent on defence lawyers and experts. The Boliden lawyers fought hard – and successfully – to have Swedish law applied, due to a shorter time for the statute of limitations.

Another expert argument blamed a high consumption of fish and drinking water for the the outbreak of the epidemic. Most of local Chileans were too poor to buy fish – according to their witnesses who followed the trial via video link – but this salient fact failed to influence the eventual outcome of the case. Boliden, who now buries its waste 300 metres under the sea, brought one key witness to the stand in the shape of Rolf Svedberg, after calling a sociologist expert for the plaintiffs “a happy amateur”.

Svedberg, whom appeared in Toxic Playground wanting to compensate the survivors (without taking any responsibility), suddenly changes tack. He contradicts himself, even when showed the film, and insists that “it was a risk, hard to predict”. He also claims the nearest houses were so far away he could not see them; and questions the identity of the children playing on the waste mountains: “They look like young adults to me”. It is perhaps symptomatic that Bolden calls the waste, not by its real name, but “negative value”, insisting again and again, that Boliden could not have predicted the catastrophe”, claiming “hindsight bias” as a defence. The verdict on 8.3.2018 was a total victory for Boliden. The Court of Appeal on 27.2.2019 saw no reason to change the verdict. The Boliden lawyers are now suing the Arica victims personally to make them pay the legal cost of the trial – a mere 4.8 Million USD.

Meanwhile Jocelyn, who was ten during the filming, is now the mother of three children, the oldest is named Lars-William. William Kalèn, the DoP, is seen filming Lars, Jocelyn and the children playing. A somehow muted goodbye to a dirty affair.”

By André Simonoviesz

This review was published at: 24/11/2020.