Though Rebecca Cammisa’s documentary film “Atomic Homefront” was filmed in St. Louis, she said the story is universal, and it’s “symbolic” that she is bringing the film to Chautauqua.
“The reality is the same problem exists everywhere, and certainly Buffalo, Niagara,” Cammisa said. “That area has had its own struggles with contamination and toxicity and radioactive contamination. So coming to that region of New York is quite important to me.”
Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday will lead a conversation with Cammisa at 10:45 a.m. Thursday, Aug. 23, in the Amphitheater to continue the Week Nine theme, “Documentary Film as Facilitator: Storytelling, Influence and Civil Discourse.”
“Atomic Homefront” uncovers the history of radioactive material in the St. Louis area that dates back to the World War II-era Manhattan Project. The toxic materials have left long-lasting effects on the environment and the people who live there, which is something people in the Buffalo area can relate to, Cammisa said.
This year marks 40 years since President Jimmy Carter issued the first state of emergency for Love Canal, located 95 miles north of Chautauqua. Love Canal was the site of a chemical waste dump that was buried; a school was later built on on the premises.
In 1978, the history of the dumping grounds was uncovered by the Niagara Gazette, and Lois Gibbs started the Love Canal Homeowners Association, a movement that aimed to relocate families. That year, more than 200 families were moved out of the region, but approximately 700 families remained, with toxins invading their homes. With Gibbs’ persistence, the rest of the people were relocated in 1981, when Carter issued another state of emergency.
“When we did the film in St. Louis, there were young, stay-at-home moms who were experiencing the same thing,” Cammisa said. “They were almost a mirror of Lois Gibbs in that fight.”
Gibbs is a source in “Atomic Homefront,” which Chautauquans can see at 6:40 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 23, at Chautauqua Cinema. A talkback with Cammisa will follow.
When watching her films alongside an audience, Cammisa is looking more at people’s reactions and what moves them. The talkback gives Cammisa a chance to localize the film’s message and how it affects the audience.
The same universal message that appears in “Atomic Homefront” is present in Cammisa’s “Which Way Home,” which will be screened at 4 p.m. Friday, Aug. 24, at Chautauqua Cinema.
“Which Way Home” is a feature-length documentary that follows unaccompanied child migrants as they make their way through Mexico to the U.S. border. With President Donald Trump’s policy of separating children from their families at the border, Cammisa said “Which Way Home” has become more relevant.
“We made that film over 10 years ago, and it’s even more relevant now than it was then,” she said.
Cammisa is drawn to telling stories that other people are not telling.
“Everyone has a camera and everyone has an iPhone; everyone can film everything, and not everything is worth filming,” Cammisa said. “But what is worth filming is our people, or communities, who don’t have a voice (who are) not being heard. Their extremely important stories are relevant to the rest of us, and yet we don’t hear about them or know about them unless a filmmaker hears about them and goes out and covers it.”
With more newspapers folding, Cammisa said documentary filmmaking has become a place for stories not covered by the mainstream media. It upsets Cammisa that the United States isn’t in the golden age of journalism, because the profession is important in educating communities on what is happening in the world.
“If our journalism goes, there goes our democracy,” Cammisa said. “We documentary filmmakers can fill a gap, but there is no way we would ever replace the beat reporter, the importance of that role.”