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.


Anonymous said...

Thank you Masked Avenger - I agree with your review of "The Tomato Effect". It is worth watching to see what a mess the health care delivery system is in with special interests holding sway to the detriment of patients. Bravo to Faun Kime and a pox on Abba Terr!

sharon said...

I love your blog. Because part of my MCS was caused by aspartame I take a little baking soda almost every day. Would you like to take some, along with some flour. We can then go to Washington and puke Rumsfeld and the FDA some homemade biscuits.

Anonymous said...

an older MCS sufferer/victim in the upper midwest (been 'isolated' for 11 years)

where do I find this movie?

And Exposed--

THANK you; finding your site was an answer to my prayers today--

Masked Avenger said...

I see my link to "The Tomato Effect" goes to something in a foreign language at the moment. You could try sending a message to Faun Kime on Facebook. The link to "Exposed" still seems to be good. Neither film was commercially available last I checked. You have to go to a screening or get them from the filmmakers (and then they are expensive).