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The art of advocacy

Thu, 07/12/2012 - 8:01am
Yale UniversityYale University

Washington’s Puget Sound is an elaborate system of waterways teeming with life and closely linked to many people’s livelihoods.

And while all may appear well on the water’s surface, the health of the Sound is under increasing pressures from nearby cities and towns and a disaster on the scale of the Exxon Valdez spill could ravage a natural jewel and the lives of thousands of people along with it.

A new documentary on Puget Sound by a Yale School of Public Health alumnus, "Sound and Vision," explores the area’s delicate ecology through the lives of people who work and live in and around the 100-mile watercourse.

Without his public health education, Eric Becker, M.P.H. ’06, says he may never have gotten involved.

“I left Yale thinking ‘public health, the way it’s traditionally done, is not for me,’” he says. “But Yale gave me a language to think about global health and development issues. I think the best films are ones that bring science and art together, and my M.P.H. helped me build that empirical framework. I’m a better filmmaker because of it.”

While most research findings are typically published in academic journals, a new generation of public health professionals is turning to media such as film to bring social, health, medical and environmental issues to life. Becker used film to document issues facing Puget Sound—through the stories of people working to clean up, protect and restore habitat along its shores. The film also advocates for social change by showing practical ways viewers can get involved to improve marine environments.

 “At the end of the day I want to tell stories about inspiring people who are having an impact,” says Becker. “It’s a really effective way to drive social change.”

Before putting his Yale public health education to use on Sound and Vision, however, Becker honed his skills as a videographer.

After graduating, a friend hired him as a researcher at HBO in Los Angeles, where he learned how to produce a television show. He gained further experience working on a documentary in Sierra Leone, Africa. Back in Los Angeles he worked on several Hollywood projects, and then he headed up to Washington, where he landed a job directing "Sound and Vision." The 63-minute documentary film was funded by the nonprofit People for Puget Sound to mark their 20th anniversary.

The documentary opens with the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, which Becker describes as the “wake-up call that spurred a national conversation about the vulnerability of our oceans and shoreline.” He began production just eight weeks after the BP spill, with scenes of oil on the Gulf shoreline and an interview with a fisherman worried that pollution will end cherished Gulf fishing trips with his grandson. The film transitions to the health threats facing Puget Sound, ranging from a potential oil spill such as the BP disaster to everyday pollution that flows into the Sound from Seattle’s antiquated drainage system. When it rains, household toxins and trash are washed into the Sound from drains throughout the city. 

Becker decided to tell the story of Puget Sound through a series of eight vignettes, because in today’s media landscape it is hard to expect anyone to view an entire feature about a social or public health cause.

“I broke the film into discrete but interwoven sections so that each piece could be watched online or on a mobile device but also experienced as a cinematic whole at screenings,” he says.

One vignette features Neal Chism, a middle-aged “trash enthusiast” who spends three to four hours a day picking up trash in Puget Sound from his pontoon boat and on walks along the shoreline. “Styrofoam, softballs, needles, plastic bags, packing peanuts, more Styrofoam,” Chism says, pointing out his findings as he collects trash. He notes that the toxins in trash are absorbed by marine life and continue up the food chain to fish caught and eaten by humans.  Chism, who says he is a semiretired engineer, also notes, wryly, “Everybody that throws trash down is (seen as) normal, everybody that picks trash up is (seen as) crazy.”

The vignettes allow people to watch parts of the film and still feel the impact, Becker says.

“If I can get one person to watch four minutes of it, then there’s some impact around that,” he says. “They’re going to think about how they live in Puget Sound. We tie the action we want to the piece of media. The media becomes a source of collaboration for people; you’re drawing them in with the story and then you’re giving them ways that they can have an impact.”

To get people to rethink the way they inhabit Puget Sound, Becker says he will launch a campaign this year using an interactive site, social media and an iPad application that shows the vignettes.

On the other hand, he says, “We love it when we get a theater full of people like we’ve had a few times. People get into watching the film and have a conversation about it.”

Becker, meanwhile, is not the only Yale School of Public Health student to turn to the medium of film to call attention to health, medical, social and environmental ills.

Jonathan P. Smith, M.P.H. ’11, produced the documentary "They Go to Die" about the exploitation of migrant laborers in the gold mining industry in South Africa. The film was recently recognized by the Tuberculosis Survival Project, an international organization dedicated to global health.

Smith’s film documented the plight of four migrant gold miners who contracted drug-resistant tuberculosis and HIV while working in the mines. After leaving their jobs and with little access to health care, the ailing men returned home and died.

Smith — who was recently appointed as a lecturer at the Yale School of Public Health — says filmmaking is an effective way to convey public health research findings to the general public. “You can’t do that in dense academic journals,” he says.

Smith is currently developing a visual epidemiology project with several public health professors at Yale. “It will be kind of like a filmmaking class at the School of Public Health,” he says of the project, which is still in the early planning stages. “Filmmaking is the next step in the natural progression of disseminating public health findings.”

Smith sees filmmaking as a “two-way bridge” — to convey academic findings to the public and to bring “lived experience” from the public to the academic realm.

Meanwhile, Becker says he will continue to use filmmaking to spread awareness about public health issues.

 “To me, the issues facing the environment are the same issues that are facing human health,” he says. “Too often we separate the two things: we think public health and global health and environmental health when they’re really one and the same.”

Becker says he was especially influenced by a course he took at Yale on health and human rights.

“To me that class was very cutting-edge,” he says. “Environmental issues are actually human rights issues, too. People have the right not to be poisoned by toxic chemicals in their food and their ecosystem. We need to realize that when we respect the ecosystem we’re also respecting our own health.”

This story originally appeared in the Yale School of Public Health magazine. Click here to read more stories from that issue.

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