Film Review: Company Town

'Company Town' reports a compelling but incomplete story about an underdog crusade for environmental justice.
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The lean, earthy documentary Company Town stirs emotions highlighting one rural Arkansas community’s struggle to hold a corporate giant accountable for polluting their county and their lives.

The working class residents of tiny, tight-knit Crossett in Ashley County have a sharp bone to pick with the Koch brothers, owners of the local Georgia-Pacific paper mill, pulp mill and chemical plant, which employs about 1,000 people in the area. As a roadside sign informs us, there are only about 6,000 people who call Crossett home, so Georgia-Pacific plants a colossal footprint in a region known as the forestry capital of the South.

But G-P also casts a dark shadow over an area where a startlingly high rate of residents suffer headaches, allergies, respiratory ailments and various forms of cancer. According to pastor and deputy sheriff David Bouie, a leading voice in the town— and in the film, co-directed by Natalie Kottke-Masocco and Erica Sardarian—the G-P plant is responsible for secretly dumping and burying tremendous amounts of toxic waste at unregulated sites throughout the county.

That’s in addition to the dangers posed by the plant’s wastewater. On a daily basis, gallons of the dark, oozy liquid reportedly are runoff to unlined settling basins as part of a treatment process that Bouie, his wife, their neighbors and several independent scientists and contractors all agree leeches toxins into the surrounding soil and leaks waste into local waterways, contaminating the town’s drinking water. One vowed steward of the state’s environment, the Ouachita River riverkeeper Cheryl Slavant, makes it her mission to prove that the plant is operating in violation of the federal Clean Water Act.

An impassioned voice around Crossett and in Company Town, Slavant appears to be the only individual of any official capacity to firmly and openly align with a community that clearly has been devastated. The film bleakly registers the human toll of such widespread loss with a scene of Bouie strolling near his home, where, just yards away from a Georgia-Pacific wastewater pond, sit the houses of neighbors who’ve died of or with “multiple” cancers. Bouie, who just like nearly everyone else in town gave his “best years” working at the plant, wonders: Where is the EPA?

A viewer might wonder, where is the rest of the story? Somewhat missing the forest for the trees, Company Town stays laser-focused on presenting the pastor and his neighbors in the context of their struggle and suffering. Apparently disinterested in characterizing the subjects more fully, the film repeats itself trumpeting their quite sound arguments. So, converted to their cause, the film’s thrust would seem to be towards the next turn in the story, the next step of action.

But despite the best efforts of Bouie, Slavant and the filmmakers, neither Koch brother, nor any of their representatives or current management-level Koch Industries or Georgia-Pacific employees, show up at the many community meetings, official hearings and church services where the citizens share their stories and grievances. Though it comes as no surprise that sought-after subjects might shun the cameras of a crusading documentary, the film makes little attempt to broaden the story beyond Crossett to cases of corporate malfeasance and environmental injustice outside Arkansas. It doggedly adheres to one track—as exemplified by the on-the-nose theme song that opens and closes the film.

The EPA does make an appearance in Crossett—several visits, in fact, that are captured on film. Company Town might not be graced by the onscreen presence of many advocates representing the corporate side of this drama, but a parade of federal, state and municipal officials sweep through Ashley County. The best thing the filmmakers can do is simply give each one enough rope to hang him or herself with, and indeed that’s what happens, to some mildly satisfying effect.

Bouie leads an EPA team on a tour of wastewater ditches and dump sites. But these agents for the environment notably don’t measure or collect any samples, with one of the officials sheepishly pointing out that they didn’t actually bring any tools for doing so. Instead, they all nod thoughtfully while passing around pieces of possibly contaminated soil like rolls at a picnic. It’s good gotcha filmmaking. Company Town does a marvelous job exposing reps from the EPA, the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality and other government agencies as, at best, ineffectual, and at worst mere feckless pawns of billionaire businessfolk.

Only one among them, an EPA administrator, appears visibly moved by the community’s horrifying stories of living and working around the plant, where formaldehyde is manufactured for use in-house during the milling process. Instead, most of the state and municipal water and health officials arrive in Crossett to assert they’ve “not seen any results to indicate contamination” and to flatly deny that the town experiences incidences of cancer at a rate higher than the state average.

What cannot be denied is the citizens’ pain, which lies at the heart of Company Town’s bare-bones reportage. The film might not access enough of the whole story to reach the unconverted, but it makes a powerful case for enforcing federal and state environmental regulations more stringently than they have been at the G-P mill, whose smokestacks, as ominously picturesque as they are plain ugly, keep on billowing potentially deadly gas into the lives and lungs of innocent people.

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