By Eric Epstein
The first film in the Stanford Summer Human Rights Series, “Stink!”, was screened on campus on July 19. The series is part of the Camera as a Witness (CAW) Program, which was founded by Stanford teacher and lecturer Jasmina Bojic eight years ago. The three films that will be shown in the Summer Series are selected from the United Nations Association Film Festival (UNAFF) archives, according to Bojic.
“All three films were actually selected for this Human Rights Program because they are focusing on not only human rights issues, but also they are focusing on environmental issues,” Bojic said. “It’s very important for us to talk about, particularly in California, where we are trying to make a statement, and there is a difference in the policies between California and around the world.”
“Stink!” is a 90-minute documentary that seeks to expose the deepest and darkest secrets of the chemical industry and its subsequent effects on American consumers. Director Jon Whelan turns the camera on himself and uses his late wife’s tragic battle with breast cancer, and a suspicious foul smell from his daughter’s new pajamas, as motivation for his quest to unlock the mysteries of chemicals in American consumer goods.
The film first focuses on the bevy of unsuspecting chemicals and products that Whelan has in his home, everything from dish soap and toilet bowl cleaner to his daughters’ shampoo. When he digs deeper, he discovers the potential dangers that the chemicals in the products pose to his family. By portraying his two young daughters as the guiltless victims of the chemicals and telling the story of his wife, Whelan establishes a very human and emotional element for the film. From there, Whelan extends the lens and depicts more cases of unregulated and unlabeled chemicals affecting the lives of innocent people, including a teenage boy who cannot safely go to school because of a severe allergy to Axe body spray.
After emphasizing how chemicals in everyday products can greatly affect lives, the film moves on to explore how there can be so many carcinogenic, endocrine-changing and harmful chemicals hidden in these goods. Whelan brings to light America’s dysfunctional manufacturing system that essentially allows big manufacturers to put any chemical in their products without informing consumers; he points out that there is no agency comparable to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that regulates what goes in consumer products — every non-ingestible item such as clothes, cleaning products and personal care products.
By comparing the current chemical regulations in the United States to the stricter and more cautious ones in place in Europe and even China, the film emphasized how vulnerable American consumers are to detrimental chemicals in their products. An assortment of clips from congressional hearings and other political conferences further emphasizes the conflicts of interest caused by lawmakers receiving payments and gifts from lobbying chemical corporations. The clips also make the negligence of the well-being of the American public in chemical regulation legislation very clear.
Throughout the film, Whelan tenaciously grills manufacturers, distributors, lobbyist politicians and chemical corporation representatives about their grossly irresponsible actions and their implications. However, he adeptly eases the tension and weaves in a few laughs for the audience during these interviews by highlighting the ludicrousness of the representative’s responses. For example, when he calls a particular manufacturer about a specific chemical that he has found in one of their products, the representative merely claims that “we did not add that chemical.”
When Jon prods further for the party responsible for adding the chemical, the representative pauses for a few moments before responding, “not us.” Jon then shoots the camera a quizzical and sassy Jim Halpert-esque look.
The film did a very effective job of inciting paranoia in me, to the point of making me want to strip down and lie in a desert devoid of all chemicals and consumer products. This is a testament to Whelan’s eloquently strung-together storyline that makes it impossible for viewers to look at their everyday products the same way. Although the film’s influence on this issue is difficult to calculate, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) was updated with more regulations and restrictions in 2016, a year after the documentary was released. Overall, “Stink!” is very compelling, well-produced and surprisingly entertaining considering its content matter. Whelan absolutely knocked his first film production out of the park, and I am very excited to see what his future projects bring.
The series’ second film, “Trashed,” will be screened for free on July 26. The final film in the series, “Tomorrow”, will screen Aug. 2.
Contact Eric Epstein at ericrepstein ‘at’ gmail.com.