Substance abuse takes on a pathetic, deadly meaning in Kathleen Mullen’s lovingly crafted documentary about the unstoppable ravages of mesothelioma. With an incubation period of 10-40 years many of those who have asbestos fibres in their lungs are blissfully unaware until the painful symptoms set in. As heroically seen with Mullen’s dad, Richard, the final months of life are truly lived “day-by-day … [then] … to be at peace.”
Wife Sheila makes the journey with remarkable stoicism (a farewell tour including home footage of the Grand Canyon’s spectacular beauty stands in stark contrast to the—incredibly—continuous mining in Thetford, Québec: the similar images wordlessly reinforcing the film’s title) and her siblings—notably Mary who puts life on hold to take on the role of primary caregiver—struggle with the knowledge of certain, preventable illness and miserable death.
Having most likely been exposed decades ago while inspecting oil pipes in Aruba, once Richard’s grim diagnosis is confirmed he begins litigation of the principals. Knowing full well that he won’t live to see the “benefit” of any settlement, the avid gardener who revelled in the role of Mr. Fix It at work and home allowed himself to be placed under the legal microscope in order to draw attention to the horrific consequences of corporate greed and political arrogance.
“Don’t offend Québec,” explains NDP MP Pat Martin (himself a sometime miner). Thanks to René Lévesque’s nationalization of the ailing industry when the Parti Québecois first took power (1976), the “precious” resource continued to be dug out of the ground, fashioned into over 3,000 products and shipped out of Canada (its carcinogenic properties have been known since the 1930s; the European Union’s ban of asbestos imports in 2000 was readily upheld under Canada’s challenge by the World Trade Organization). Thank goodness many parts of Southeast Asia and Africa have no qualms about poisoning their own populations in order to build cheap, sturdy housing and—astonishingly—sanitary drains and water pipes.
To better understand why this is still going on, Mullen (engagingly accompanied by Paul Linklatter’s Bach-informed solo guitar) opts to follow the industry from first harvest to end users. In Thetford there are bus tours where workers’ safety is extolled and the remarkable usefulness of the products trumpeted with unabashed pride. Outside the plant, residents bemoan the numerous tailing piles (being recycled as easily available earth to landscape new homes) and steady decline of the town’s populace (the young are vanishing, the elderly trapped in houses few want to buy). The gaunt faces and shrivelled bodies of workers in Amedabad, India give ugly testament to the effects of exposure: the employees are abandoned by their companies and tended by merciful neighbours who quietly harbour the wish that the advanced cases come to their inevitable conclusion sooner than later.
Filmmaker Mullen’s skill as a storyteller is once again confirmed. In this instance she deftly balances third-person dispassion with first-person experience that speaks to the heart of anyone who has witnessed a bedside passing. How curious to appear in the same year as Oxygen (cross-reference below) where the far too early death of those suffering from cystic fibrosis—despite the generational difference—has many similar threads.
Illegal drugs—most everyone agrees—are, understandably, off limits for humankind; tobacco is OK provided it’s hidden behind counters and packaged with scary images of the addicted. Yet asbestos continues to provide jobs and profit at home even as many of the planet’s poorer backyards surround themselves with such an unhealthy time bomb. Thanks to the Mullen family’s courage, that awful truth is now just as exposed as the unwitting victims trying themselves to live “day-by-day.” JWR