In March 1990, Judith Helfand, a 25-year-old filmmaker, volunteered to work on a documentary about DES, a synthetic estrogen that was prescribed to 5 million pregnant women from 1947 to 1971. It caused many of their daughters exposed in utero to develop devastating health and reproductive illnesses, including a very rare cervical cancer. Helfand, who grew up in Nassau County, Long Island, which has one of the highest DES exposure rates in the country, had known since she was 14 that her mother had taken the drug.
“I grew up feeling really safe, because I was informed,” Helfand says. “I thought if you didn’t have cancer by 22, you wouldn’t get it.” She was wrong.
The producers asked everyone working on the film who’d been DES-exposed to get checked. Within weeks, Helfand had a massive hysterectomy. In a six-hour operation, surgeons removed her uterus, cervix, fallopian tubes and the top third of her vagina.
Carrying her catheter in a bag from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, she went from the hospital to her parents’ ranch house to heal. Mourning the children she never would have, she thought the film crew would follow her home. When they didn’t, she set up a tripod in the corner and began a video-diary that was to last for five years.
Her resulting film, A Healthy Baby Girl, premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah and is one of ten independent non-fiction films chosen out of hundreds to be in the P.O.V. series on PBS. It will be televised June 17.
While Helfand’s personal story is indeed affecting, it is the questions she asked while making the film and her plans for the completed movie that make A Healthy Baby Girl especially compelling for activists. Helfand strove to keep the movie true to what her family is–white, middle class, Jewish, suburban. But she was just as adamant about making a film that would be a useful organizing tool for all people working on toxic exposure, family and reproductive health or corporate accountability.
Judging from the reaction of activists across the country, she’s succeeded. Within days of seeing the film, Bill Walsh, Greenpeace’s national toxics campaign coordinator, assigned one of his staff to help Helfand with the film’s distribution. Greenpeace recently sponsored a screening for the Inuit community in Anchorage, Alaska and plans to do a blitz in Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley” around the national broadcast.
The film’s message dovetails with Greenpeace’s work against trash and medical waste incinerators, the biggest emitters of dioxin, which was the culprit in Agent Orange and at Love Canal. DES and dioxin are sister chemicals; both throw the hormonal and endocrine systems out of whack. The EPA, which is currently re-evaluating dioxin’s toxicity, has said most Americans already have more dioxin in their bodies than is safe, says Joel Tickner, a Greenpeace staff scientist.
“It really blew my mind,” Walsh says of A Healthy Baby Girl. “It teaches that the chemicals we’re dealing with produce horrible effects at very low doses, that the chemical you ingest today can have an impact on your child in the womb that won’t manifest itself until 25 years after she’s born, and that, like cigarette companies 30 years ago, chemical companies today know about the impact of their chemical products.”
Robert Wages, president of the Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers Union, gave Helfand funds for post-production. Helfand remembers that when she showed the film to an OCAW convention in Long Beach, California, she was a little nervous. Would it offend men who work in oil refineries, she wondered? After all, in one scene she exclaims, “Daddy wrote ‘vagina’ to President Bush?” She had nothing to worry about. “They completely got the movie and they could completely relate,” she says, because they work with known carcinogens, hormone- and endocrine-disrupters and chemicals that have never even been tested. “People don’t talk about their sterility or infertility, but a whole shop can be affected,” she says. “I realized what was going on in my house might help people in similar situations open up and start to talk about what was happening to them.”
With the alternately haunting and joyous Eastern European sound of the Klezmatics as accompaniment, the film tells the story of the havoc DES wreaked not only on Helfand’s body, but also on her relationships with those closest to her–her mother, father, boyfriend and extended family. It explores the classic DES crucible–her mother’s feelings of guilt and Helfand’s fear and anger.
In the film, Helfand assures her mom, “I don’t think you did anything wrong.”
“But sometimes you blame yourself,” her mother replies, later adding, “I would rather it had happened to me.”
Explaining why she included such painful scenes, Helfand says, “We’ve gotten really used to hearing about damages due to unbridled corporate power. What we’re not used to hearing about is what happens to the people.
“What happens inside their relationships, inside their bodies and inside the bodies of their children is not any different from what happened between me and my mom and our health. What’s different is the form. My mom took a pill. They might have made the pill or been exposed on the shop floor. In both cases, they were trying to take care of their families.”
Following Helfand as she joins the DES Cancer Network and lobbies in Washington for the first federally-funded DES research and education effort, A Healthy Baby Girl presents the history of DES as the corporate betrayal that it was. In 1938, the year DES was synthesized, laboratory mice exposed to the drug developed cancer, says Susan Helmrich, an epidemiologist at the Public Health Institute in Berkeley. The following year, in several studies, exposed mice were born with malformed reproductive organs. In 1941, farmers began buying DES to plumpen chickens and fatten cows. Male agricultural workers developed breasts, Helmrich says, but it wasn’t until 1959, when high concentrations of DES in poultry produced similar symptoms in consumers, that the Food and Drug Administration barred its use in chicken and lamb.
Still, pharmaceutical companies marketed it as a wonder drug to prevent miscarriage, says Helmrich, who is also president of the DES Cancer Network. A controlled study in 1953 showed that DES did nothing to guarantee a full-term pregnancy, and indeed caused higher rates of premature birth. Yet it wasn’t until 1971, after an outbreak of rare cancer among several young Boston women whose mothers had taken DES, that the FDA issued an advisory against its use during pregnancy. However, drug companies sold it for that purpose in developing countries into the early 1980s.
Helfand differs from filmmakers who, while politically committed, see their work as primarily theirs. As intimate as the film is, she wants organizers to feel that they, too, have some ownership of A Healthy Baby Girl. And while many filmmakers hope their movies will change minds and affect policy, they rarely do the legwork Helfand does to make connections between their subject and seemingly unrelated issues.
Drawing on what she learned from making The Uprising of ’34, a film about a general textile strike in the south that she co-directed with George Stoney, her former professor and one of the founders of public access television, Helfand worked to build a constituency for A Healthy Baby Girl while she was still shooting and editing the film.
“I feel like I’m a filmmaker/organizer,” she explains. “If you want to make a documentary that’s useful for social change, work with social change groups. They helped me understand what their needs were. When your movie is done, it’s too late.”
Wanting to be sure the film would “read” outside New York, Helfand screened rough-cut versions of the movie to focus groups in San Francisco, Knoxville and a dozen cities in between, aiming each time for a diverse crowd of organizers–anti-toxics folks, environmental policy wonks, labor unionists, women’s health advocates and Jews probing the spiritual responsibility of tikkun olam, or care of the earth.
She built relationships with national groups including Physicians for Social Responsibility, the National Women’s Health Network and the Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste and with regional organizations such as the Carolina Alliance for Fair Employment, Western MassCOSH, the Utah Progressive Network and the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life.
Hetal Dalal, field organizer for the 850-member National Organizers Alliance, recalls that after showing a rough cut to NOA’s annual gathering last year, Helfand asked the audience if they were bothered by the film’s lack of ethnic diversity. “She was concerned about whether it would be accessible to other people,” Dalal says. “And folks at NOA decided there was enough texture about this family that it reaches out in ways not all films filled with just white faces do.”
Helfand made critical decisions about what to keep in and what to leave out based on this feedback. Because of this process, there are organizers all over the country who have an investment in the film, says Pam Calvert, the organizing and outreach coordinator for A Healthy Baby Girl. “They’re aware of how it can be used, because they helped shape it.”
Now that the movie is completed, the Healthy Baby Girl modus operandi is to get on the horn, hunt down a source of hormone- and endocrine-disrupters nearby each scheduled screening, and invite local organizers to piggyback off the film’s publicity to generate attention for their cause. “Grassroots activists are so overwhelmed with work,” says Calvert. “When we say, ‘We have the screening and you can use it as a hook,’ it’s music to their ears.”
As with the focus groups, Helfand’s distribution strategy creates opportunities for activists who don’t know each other to meet. “What I see in A Healthy Baby Girl is an opportunity to build cross-class, cross-community, cross-issue alliances,” Helfand says. “I don’t think any group can walk alone, particularly when you’re talking about corporate power.”
At Sundance, local organizers explained to the crowd of film buffs that the health effects of the dioxin released by a chemical weapons incinerator 55 miles away from the festival could mirror that of DES. “There was a woman who stood up afterwards and said, ‘I’m a DES daughter, and I will help you work against this incinerator,'” Calvert recalls. The Deseret News, a conservative, Mormon-owned newspaper, did a big spread on DES, dioxin, and the threat both pose to children. The local NPR affiliate and several TV stations also linked the film and the incinerator.
“That’s pretty cool, groundbreaking stuff in terms of how film distribution and organizing can connect,” says Dalal. “Judy as a filmmaker helped figure out what the story was. That’s at the core of what good community organizers are struggling with–how to frame the story so people will listen. She’s got lots of lessons to teach us, and vice versa.”