Thursday, April 27, 2006


I have little idea how healthy people will respond to Exposed, a new documentary about a woman with Multiple Chemical Sensitivities. I responded with, "hey, look, it's my life on the screen," but I also kept thinking about them (you?)--the chemically tolerant folks. Squirming a little, I wondered if the general public would be sympathetic as the woman, named as Katherine, delivered herself up to the camera in painful, private moments--exposed indeed.

Katherine, while attractive and personable, is no air-brushed poster child for Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS). An avant-garde dancer and performer who often filmed herself, she's not suffering quietly or demurely. After a bad chemical exposure she weeps into the phone with distress and frustration, trying to wring some emotional support out of an apparently unattuned listener. "No, I don't have the flu," she says between clenched teeth, "I have environmental illness." In another particularly raw scene she speaks angrily to the camera while washing her hair outside on a cold winter day. She is away from home and going to such lengths in order to avoid breathing in the synthetic chemical fragrances in a friend's bathroom.

In addition to allowing us a window into her daily life, Katherine offers a social commentary--particularly addressing the widespread denial of MCS as a real disease. The filmmaker, Heidrun Holzfeind, does not establish much of a separate directorial perspective distinguishable from this critique. Between shots of Katherine, Holzfeind does intersperse, for effect, segments of 1950's-era marketing footage from the chemical industry, as well as shorter snippets of modern advertising and political speech. Also presented is some disturbing science supporting the reality of chemical dangers. It's clear the director is on Katherine's side, but Holzfeind allows her to be the one to draw the more subjective conclusions.

I didn't find much with which to quibble in Katherine's analysis, although it took the form of off-the-cuff, often biting, remarks rather than closely-reasoned or factually-documented arguments. Again I didn't know how it would play with the uninitiated. She rhetorically kicks mainstream doctors to the curb. She identifies industry's cynical, profit-driven opposition to recognition of chemical harms. And she indicts "chemical culture" for such faults as an emphasis on the quick fix and a need to control--in contrast with her own hard-won belief in the need to be patient and allow her body to heal itself.

In one of her moments of reflection, Katherine talks about needing to set aside what she knows in order to interact socially in a normal fashion. Unsure of her meaning, I guessed that she was talking either about pretending to be healthy and happy, or about tacitly accepting generally-shared assumptions that no longer fit her experience--for example, that we live in a benign environment. She certainly doesn't seem to be suppressing much in Exposed; she's practically screaming out her truth. While I worried about the P.R. impact on the one hand, on the other I felt vicariously thrilled by her lack of apology and aggressive assertion of her reality in the face of its denial in so many quarters.

I, for one, would rather see someone being genuine, engaged, and angry than someone silencing herself, in order to fit in, at the expense of her health. Yes, I'm sure there are more enlightened options and I'm also sure that Katherine--and a certain slightly abrasive blogger--are working toward manifesting them. In the meantime, I hope as many members of the well populace as possible will see this film. And I hope they respond with compassion to the story of a real, struggling person rather than waiting for diplomatic coaxing before taking to heart her crucial messages

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The Tomato Effect

Some dirty politics have been brought into play by the emergence of a chemically-induced illness known as Multiple Chemical Sensitivity. Anyone interested in understanding them should find a way to see the new documentary The Tomato Effect. In it, the camera follows Faun Kime (who also wrote, produced and directed the film) as she tracks down the truth about her father's death a decade earlier. She sets out to learn if there is any basis for the suspicions raised by his fatal mountaineering accident in 1992.

In the film, Kime's narration of her moving personal journey is skillfully interwoven with the still-unfolding history of a witch hunt. The California Medical Board systematically persecutes ten loosely-associated physicians who treat patients with Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS). Kime's father Zane, one of the doctors, died just before the climax of his precedent-setting legal battle to retain his license. His case was expected to exonerate the maligned practitioners of a developing medical specialty termed environmental medicine.

The film's political focus is largely confined to California. We witness the effects of powerful, unscrupulous forces operating within the state to protect their financial interests. Various parties stand to lose if legitimacy is granted either to environmental medicine or to the MCS diagnosis and its recognition as a man-made problem. In relatively brief segments Kime does suggest a national backdrop: The EPA practices willful denial; the allergists' society is trying to protect patient "market share;" and the chemical industry plays the role of chief villain with deep pockets. The tales the film tells, however, all take place in and around the San Francisco Bay Area. We see interview footage with a handful of people who constitute a microcosm of the larger conflicts.

One representative story involves a policeman who is chemically injured on the job by a spill at a Chevron oil refinery and develops MCS. He describes starting to recover after being put on disability by an environmental medicine specialist only to be ordered back to work by a company-chosen allergist, Abba Terr. He goes back and forth between the two doctors, his health yo-yoing up and down depending on who is calling the shots. At some point he initiates a law suit. While Terr is charging fees of $600 per hour as an anti-MCS "expert," the other doctor, Joseph McGovern, faces humiliation. With the Chevron case still pending, the medical board accuses McGovern, in a singularly outrageous charge, of insanity. (Of course MCS patients suffer this indignity routinely, but usually less publicly.)

Kime conducts a particularly telling interview with one doctor who averted the destruction of his career. He cheerfully admits to buying his way out of his predicament with hefty campaign contributions to first a Democratic and then a Republican governor. "Republicans are generally cheaper than Democrats," he quips. He is himself appointed to the medical board and investigation into his conduct is dropped. He comes across as more savvy, and paints himself as more cynical, than the filmmaker's idealistic father. Zane, the elder Kime, declined to use his colleague's connections to save himself in favor of legal and legislative battles that might have spared others.

The Tomato Effect takes its title from a term describing the rejection of effective medical treatments because they conflict with currently-accepted theories. Additional definitions explain the historical origins of the term and describe the more general fallacy behind the phenomenon. At the end of the film, Kime ties her narrative threads together within the context of the broader meaning. She leaves the viewer confused, however, as she arrives at a jarring last-second conclusion that fits tidily into her conceptual scheme, but contradicts earlier revelations. This final brush stroke is unfortunate and unnecessary. The film already has a sufficient sense of resolution and its emotional power lies simply in the side-by-side presentation of one person's sincere effort to lay bare the truth and the machinations of the utterly corrupt in trying to conceal it. Thanks are due to Faun Kime for her willingness to take on those dark forces bearing only the insubstantial weapons of honesty and a movie camera.