A new documentary, The People vs. Agent Orange, shows how the United States military's widespread chemical warfare in Vietnam left subsequent generations with ongoing, severe health problems. It highlights the work of Tran To Nga, a French-Vietnamese journalist who has sued 14 companies that produced and sold the potent defoliant dioxin used against her and others in Vietnam. Tran is seeking damages, and a legal victory would be a first as there has been no compensation provided to a Vietnamese victim since the war. A ruling on her suit is scheduled for May 10.
There is also a group of people closer to home in the Pacific Northwest fighting their own battle. Carol Van Strum has worked for decades to expose the dangers of chemicals like Agent Orange, which the US continued to use despite the detriment it caused to people's health. Van Strum was also one of the leading forces behind the Poison Papers, an online archive of records that drew city attorneys' attention from Portland to Seattle.
The People vs. Agent Orange directors Kate Taverna and Alan Adelson are longtime collaborators who worked on this documentary together. They pursued this story after seeing the damage these chemicals could have on people in photographs and began digging into the history of the ongoing crisis. We spoke with them about this documentary and the truths they were able to uncover.
We lightly edited this interview for clarity.
HUTCHINSON: There is so much to cover in the long history of this struggle. What was your first entry point into this story?
ADELSON: It started with compassion for the victims. The investigative journalist in me kept thinking, if their health problems were the result of human greed, of corporate avarice, if the corporations that produced the Agent Orange herbicides knew that it was going to cause this damage, and went ahead to create the products to sell them knowingly, then that was a lesson that humankind needed to hear. They knew, and they were conspiring to keep it quiet to not alarm the government because they were afraid that their product would be taken off the market.
HUTCHINSON: How did you first come to know Tran To Nga?
TAVERNA: I was not going to get involved unless there was a character to follow and make it into something that an audience could get involved in. We found Madame Tran when she filed her lawsuit in 2014 and we started filming her in 2015. You follow her as a character and you connect to her character.
HUTCHINSON: The documentary strikes that balance of making sure you don't lose sight of the people, the characters like you said, being impacted. What was it like being there with her in the midst of this historic and potentially game-changing lawsuit?
TAVERNA: It's been seven years and the final arguments from both sides happened on January 25. Just like [Tran] wanted to happen, global media was all over it, and all of this stuff came out everywhere. It was so impressive. Suddenly, this one woman fighting her David and Goliath case in this little tiny courthouse in France, all of this media was there. The three judges are going to make a decision now that comes down on May 10.
ADELSON: So they promised, although we've seen a lot of delays along the way. But yeah, that was amazing.
HUTCHINSON: Alan [Adelson], I wanted to ask you about one particular moment that stuck out to me. You show up in the documentary when you are sitting across the table from Judge Jack Weinstein. You ask him some difficult questions about a settlement agreement he oversaw, which he doesn't provide the most forthright of answers to. What was that interaction like, and what did you hope to get out of him?
TAVERNA: You kept pushing him. [Laughs]
ADELSON: It was very, very weird to find myself interrogating a very distinguished judge. He was, just as you're observing, being evasive with me and I had really prepared for that interview. I had waited and waited. When he finally gave us the green light to come and film with him, I wanted to make sure that the questions the world probably would have wanted me to ask would be answered. At the very least, I had to press for those answers. It had been widely rumored among the legal activists who had brought the Vietnamese case, that had been assigned to Weinstein, that he had forced the settlement of the veterans' case. In fact, that settlement gave the veterans like two grand a piece to get soft tissue cancer taken care of.
So a lot of people involved in that case had felt Weinstein gave the chemical companies the assurance that if they settled there would be no further litigation. This was not officially known, it doesn't appear in any of the documents, but that was the suspicion among the legal community. We had lawyers cautioning us about that scene in the film, saying, 'Look, Weinstein is so prevalently respected that if you hold him to any critical light it could produce skepticism about the film in the legal community.' We went back and forth about it.
HUTCHINSON: You don't often see the chance for someone to sit down across with someone involved in this and ask them these tough questions. Did you hear from any of the chemical companies or the government in the work you were doing?
TAVERNA: We tried to get them.
ADELSON: I sought them out and they were universally non-responsive. The government, the EPA, good grief, they are so defensive. You had to go through layer upon layer and then all you'd get from them was the official stories.
HUTCHINSON: It was interesting seeing how you took these seemingly disparate locations, worlds apart, then showed them going through these similar struggles of legal battles in order to bring information to light. In the scope of this issue, the people that are impacted are often fighting the same fight. How did you bring them together and what initially brought you to the Pacific Northwest?
TAVERNA: We read an article about Carol Van Strum in 2017 when we were already filming with Madame Tran. It came out in The Intercept and it was about her putting together forty years of these documents that was in some barn on her property rotting and getting it online. She was retrieving all of this history and a lot of these incriminating documents to make them available for whoever needs them. I thought, 'This is an incredible woman, we have to go meet her!' We contacted her and filmed her starting in April of 2018. She is amazing, we fell in love with her.
ADELSON: She loved being found. It's astonishing what a positive person she is given the tragic loss that she has experienced in the course of her activism. I just marvel at it. She is incredibly giving and enduring and trusting.
HUTCHINSON: When it comes to that archive of information, has it continued to grow?
TAVERNA: They've gone to another website called Columbia University's Toxic Docs.
ADELSON: They sent off a whole truckload of new documents to be scanned by the Columbia operation, which are slowly emerging as well. There is a whole continuum of discovery and revelation that has been going on. As you see in the film, Carol built most of her archive on the basis of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and the previous lawsuits produced boxes of discovery documents. She gathered all of that.
HUTCHINSON: What do you hope can come of this documentary, and what can the future provide to those still dealing with the profound damages?
ADELSON: We want the film to get people to examine how we wage war, how we abuse the environment.
TAVERNA: We make these catastrophes that have consequences.
ADELSON: Right, and how we refuse to acknowledge the damage we do, much less correct it.