Cinema Verde Official Selection Sprayed Explores the Effect of Airborne Chemicals on International Communities

Posted by Daniel Salazar, February 1, 2018

By Daniel Salazar

We had an interview with independent filmmaker Craig Leon and Miami Beach activist Dr. Michael Hall to discuss Sprayed, Leon’s new documentary.

A Cinema Verde official selection and winner of the Best Documentary Short at the Hollywood Film Festival, Sprayed covers the controversies surrounding the use of airborne chemicals in Brazil, Vietnam, and Miami, and the health consequences they may have had on those sprayed. Craig Leon and Dr. Hall will both be attending Cinema Verde International Environmental Film & Arts Festival, happening February 8-11th in Gainesville.

“I have been living in different parts of the world,” Leon explained to me. I had been surprised when he called me from a Hong Kong phone number for our interview, so I asked him if he was shooting a film there at the moment. In fact, he was in Ecuador.

It makes sense, then, that his films are similarly international. Leon has been a documentary filmmaker since he created Future History Films ten years ago. His first films were set in the Caribbean and covered such diverse topics as the economy in St. Kitts, a volcanic eruption in Montserrat, and the lives of artists and entrepreneurs in Trinidad and Tobago. This last film, The Creative Soul of Trinidad and Tobago, was accepted into the Cannes Film Festival.

Then came Modern Nature (also a Cannes selection), which took Leon across five continents during its filming, and then after he was hired by a group of Chinese architects to create Vertical City.

It was while working on this film in Brazil that he learned about a strange increase in the number of babies born with birth defects such as microcephaly, primarily in the northeast of the country. Microcephaly is a condition in which a baby’s head is significantly smaller than it is supposed to be, often as a result of abnormal brain development. “It was really traumatic for the country and obviously for the families,” said Leon.

“Then, we were in the studio, and for some reason, we decided to look at some of the footage from the 60s of the Vietnam War.” It then occurred to him that there were similarities between what was happening in Brazil and the birth defects many Vietnamese infants had been born with, even generations after Agent Orange was used during the war. Although the harmful effects of these chemical weapons are common knowledge, Leon said, there has never been legal recognition nor reparations made to the victims.

This was the original thought behind Sprayed, Craig Leon’s new documentary on the consequences of the spraying of toxic chemicals in Brazil, Vietnam, and Miami.

Miami was not originally a part of the picture. He had been shooting in Vietnam when his cameraman pointed him to the Naled controversy in Miami. Naled, an organophosphate insecticide, was being sprayed on Miami-Dade County to control mosquito populations during the Zika epidemic. The EPA states that Naled does not cause health problems at low levels of exposure, but higher exposures have been found to be harmful to humans, causing nausea and dizziness and, at higher concentrations, respiratory paralysis and death.

Naled is capable of crossing the placenta through the bloodstream. Repeated exposure may cause birth defects in offspring.

The spraying of the chemical led to protests from concerned residents of the area. Dr. Michael Hall, a general practitioner based in Miami Beach, had become one of the movement’s faces.

“I was being sprayed personally,” Dr. Hall said. “I ended up getting affected by it, negatively. So did my dog.” And so did his patients. His patients were coming to him with similar symptoms, but Dt. Hall could not explain to them what was happening. “That started me on the journey of trying to understand what the city was doing, what the county was doing, why we were not being informed–what was happening with the spraying of Naled.”

Dr. Hall and other Miami-Dade residents formed a rapid response team, and from there Dr. Hall says the movement grew very organically. They organized a series of protests (Miami Beach City Hall was rather conveniently next to Dr. Hall’s practice), confronting county officials and at one point Governor Rick Scott directly.

One day, Craig Leon reached out to him. “We ended up meeting up to get lunch,” Dr. Hall recalled. “He liked what I had to say, and he asked me if I would be a part of the film.” They did a number of interviews, and Leon came to one of the city hall meetings. When Dr. Hall filed an injunction against the spraying of Naled, Leon followed the story as the lawsuit moved along federal court.

“I didn’t know exactly what my role was in the film,” Dr. Hall admitted, but sure enough he became one of the movie’s principal characters.

Craig Leon’s approach to documentary filmmaking was very much influenced by his educational and professional background. “I consider myself a researcher, first and foremost,” Leon said. His goal in his films is to be as balanced as possible, providing a range of perspectives and presenting them with objectivity. “I don’t use a narrator or a central voiceover of any kind,” Leon elaborated, “because the concept for me for documentaries is to document what’s happening and to encourage people to connect the dots themselves.”

His mission is ultimately to educate. “It is really a research project brought to film,” Leon said of Sprayed.

It’s because of this shared mission that Leon is honored to attend Cinema Verde’s 9th annual environmental film festival. He believes the festival is a fantastic opportunity for the Gainesville community to watch truly independent filmmaking, and he is most excited for the discussions that will arise during the festival. “What I like most about documentary filmmaking is that after a film is shown that the level of debate that can occur is very powerful,” Leon shared.

He believes it is especially important for the people of Florida to watch Sprayed. “I think this is a very important issue for Florida, and I believe decisions do need to be made about mosquito control and the trade-offs between dealing with viruses and diseases and the use of chemicals,” Leon said.

Dr. Hall, too, hopes the film will raise awareness and concern about what he calls the US’s “love affair” with chemicals. “There is a major dilemma in our society about what we feel is safe and what we feel is unsafe,” Dr. Hall said. “We’re in a place where we can understand that chemicals are very very dangerous and toxic to the human body, to the fetus, to other organisms. There is no reason for us to do that. There is no reason for us to be doing that to ourselves”

Dr. Hall’s lawsuit was dismissed without prejudice in federal court. The judge wanted Dr. Hall and fellow plaintiff Cindy Mattson to meet with the city to discuss their concerns. A meeting was thus scheduled, but city officials, Dr. Hall said, never met with them. “They refused to sit down with us at their own meeting.”

“If we need to go back to court, we will go back to court,” Dr. Hall added. “I still think that there should be repercussions.”

Sprayed will be screened at Cinema Verde’s 2018 film festival on Saturday, February 11th at 3:45 pm at Heartwood Soundstage. Craig Leon and Dr. Michael Hall will do a Q&A with the audience after the screening. Cinema Verde tickets can be bought here.

Recent Headlines