“Heart-rending” Director William Johansson Kalén interviewed in Business Doc Europe.

IDFA 2020: Toxic Avengers

By Nick Cunningham

Following on from their Toxic Playground (2009), directors William Johansson Kalén and Lars Edman return to the Chilean town of Arica to continue their investigation into the poisoning of the town people, caused by Swedish waste dumped there in 1984. But this time the town has lawyers fighting its corner. Arica world premieres in IDFA Frontlight.

In the Swedish town of Skellefteå resides the Boliden company, one of the biggest mining concerns in the world, we are told. Many of the Swedish townsfolk have much to thank the company for. It brought both wealth and prosperity to the area, guaranteed employment and, as director William Johansson Kalén notes, it paid for both his and co-director Lars Edman’s education.
But the same cannot be the said for the people of Arica on the other side of the world in Chile, who in 1984, were unknowing recipients of toxic waste, in the form of smelting sludge, which was dumped beside their town and left unprocessed by the unscrupulous company that accepted the dollar from Boliden to do so.
The results have been catastrophic. Over the past 35 years hundreds of people have developed and died of various cancers, and numerous children were born with horrendous birth defects.
But led by Chilean anthropologist and activist Rodrigo Pino, the people of Arica decided to call time on Boliden and, aided by a team of human rights lawyers, they took the mining company to court to claim compensation. The second half of the heart-rending film follows the ins and outs of judicial procedure before the judge finally passes judgement, while a poisoned town halfway across the world waits to see what Swedish justice looks like.
A remarkable fact about filmmakers William and Lars is not that they came from the same town, rather that they studied at the same Chilean film school, knowing nothing of each either’s existence. When they eventually met they determined to work together, planning a film on the Chilean fruit production industry. When a teacher suggested the case of a poisoned community in north of Chile, however, their interest was piqued. When it transpired that the alleged transgressor was the upstanding Boliden mining company in whose shadow the directors grew up, the die was cast. Little did they realise the story would define the rest of their lives.
“Coming from this small town, where Boliden has meant so much to the whole community, that gold paid for me and Lars to go to school and for all the welfare and the great stuff we had,” William agrees. “Then, knowing that the waste was dumped on a poor community on the other side of the globe doesn’t feel right. It makes you feel disappointed.”
“As Lars says in the film, however much you try and twist this, if the stuff sent to Chile had stayed in Sweden, I can say for sure that kids would not have been playing in this toxic waste.”
The film is a story of strength, loyalty and perseverance on the part of those (including the filmmakers) who have fought hard for the people of Arica, both in and out of court, over many years. It is also a tale of expediency and corporate protectionism and even more waste, this time financial, as we see the slick Boliden lawyers and their consultancy firm witnesses seek to undermine the claims of the town, and question the validity of witnesses. But is also a tale of human frailty as key witness Rolf, the Boliden executive who oversaw the initial transaction back in 1984, and who subsequently played an important role in exposing the crime in Toxic Playground, must decide for whom he will now testify. For Boliden or for Arica.
“This is the reason I do what I want to do,” says William of his documentary vocation. “It is important in so many ways, both that we are where we are, and have this possibility to give these people a voice. Yes, we are very lucky, me and Lars both, that we grew up where we did in a very safe and rich environment with all these possibilities. But this is something I will continue living with.”
He then tells a moving story about what took him to Chile to study film in the first place. After school he went to Madrid to study Spanish, where he read a book written by the widow of Chilean poet Victor Jara, who was brutally tortured and murdered under the Pinochet regime.
“In the book they were talking about how Swedish documentary filmmakers were really important in recording resistance to the 1973 coup,” William says. One of these was Leonardo Henrichsen whose last reel of film recorded the moment of his death, as a soldier aims and fires the fatal bullet. 
“Those images were so powerful and so important for the world’s understanding of what happened in Chile. If there was one moment when I thought ok, I want to make documentary filmmaking, it was when I read that in the book. Then I found this film school in Chile and that was where I later met Lars. And then we decided to tell this story.”
Sweden, Chile, Belgium, Norway, United Kingdom, 97 mins
Director: Lars Edman, William Johansson Kalén
Production: Andreas Rocksen for Laika Film & Television AB, William Johansson Kalén
Co-production: Clin d’Oeil films, Relation04 Media AS, Radio Film Ltd, Aricadoc
Cinematography: William Johansson Kalén
Animation: Johan Lindström
Editing: Göran Gester, William Johansson Kalén
Sound: Lars Edman
Music: Per Henrik Mäenpää
Screenplay: Lars Edman, William Johansson Kalén
Involved TV Channel: SVT, RTBF
World Sales: Lightdox

This artice was first published at: https://businessdoceurope.com/idfa-2020-toxic-avengers/