by Mary Nyiri
Statuesque, blond and busty, when Erin Brockovich (photo right) walks onto the stage, any memories of Julia Roberts portraying her are displaced by the very real charismatic pretty woman. Made famous around the world in the 2000 film that bears her name, Brockovich investigated groundwater contamination in Hinckley, California, and its link to illnesses suffered by its residents. With her gut instincts and fierce tenacity, she helped build a case against Pacific Gas & Electric that resulted in a $333 million dollar settlement against the company. She came to Berlin to promote the documentary Last Call at the Oasis in which she takes part. As part of the Kulinarisches Kino (Culinary Cinema) program, she participated in an informal discussion about herself and the film.
Brockovich continues her work as an environmental activist on water quality issues in the United States but with a global outlook. It is a part of what she calls her sticktoitiveness, a term she learned from her mother and defined as a propensity to follow through in a determined manner and dogged persistence born of obligation and stubbornness. She says emphatically, “Now this I understood! And I quickly took that word and turned it into really the little red engine that could: I think I can, I think I can, I know I can, I know I can.….Sticktoitiveness. I live my life by it.” She sees her father as a role model and says that he taught her “…the value of water, good land, health and your family. And nothing else really matters.” They sang songs about water and her father told her that water would become a commodity in her lifetime, and he was right. She didn’t always appreciate his wisdom until she was confronted with it. “Water is something we all take for granted,” she says and further explains, “Water is a living element that not one of us can sustain life without. And just because you may not have a water crisis here, doesn’t mean that there isn’t a water crisis over there that in fact can affect you. I see it happening throughout the globe. I have emails from again 124 countries and territories. We forget and take for granted that thousands of people a day die because they don’t have water. We forget thousands of people a day whose health is impacted because they have contaminated water…Water is supposed to be a human right. It’s a God-given gift and many, many, many people can’t get it and I think that it is important as a global village we recognize where we overuse water, misuse water, have contaminated water and work collectively to find ways how we can save our water and clean our water because it says it in the film: A world without water will be a world without us.”
Director/producer/writer Jessica Yu presents fresh water crises in the U.S. and other places around the world in Last Call at the Oasis, which was inspired by the book The Ripple Effect by Alex Prudhomme. In the film Yu captures Brockovich at her best in community meetings where she urges residents that suspect contamination of their drinking water to take action, to push back for the betterment of themselves, their children, their health, their neighbors and their environment. She investigates water contaminated with chromium 6, the same pollutant found in Hinckley, California, that is now found in over forty homes in Midland, Texas. In this hometown of President George W. Bush, the water runs green and the contamination is at higher levels than in Hinckley. Recently the toxic hexavalent chromium, or chromium 6, has again been detected spreading beyond an agreed containment boundary towards residents’ homes in Hinckley. Brockovich will be returning there to investigate again.
Interspersed throughout the film are other projects Brockovich is working on. In Carsen City, California, houses were built on a former oil tank farm operated by Shell Oil Company. High levels of methane and the carcinogen benzene have been detected. She testified before the U.S. Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee on “disease clusters.” Disease clusters are occurrences of cancer in small areas or in a short period of time at rates higher than statistically normal. Brockovich hears from thousands of concerned citizens and is working with Google on a map for plotting trends of disease clusters throughout the U.S.
Brockovich agrees with a quote from Albert Einstein that was used by Dr. Tyrone Hayes from the University of California at Berkeley: Those who have the privilege of knowing have the duty to act. “I’m hoping that the film will inspire people to wake up and before the disaster happens we don’t have to be our own demise, we can rescue ourselves and we can change the course that we are on.”Brockovich believes, “Each one person can have a ripple effect and make a difference.” For instance, just imagine if every person in the world didn’t water his grass for just one day, how much water that would save. The film also looks into ways to recycle water and reclaim water for drinking.
Brockovich is pursuing other ways to clean up water. She is interested in new legislation that will allow criminal charges to be brought against a CEO or corporate executive who knows about poisoning the water from which people die. She believes that if corporate players are held personally accountable for their actions then their behavior may stop.
Acknowledging that she receives tens of thousands of emails and personal appeals, Brockovich wants to put information out there so people can get help. She has a team working on her website (www.brockovich.com) to provide information on where to turn, whether it is sexual harassment, worker’s compensation or environmental issues. She envisions a networking system that provides contacts with agencies, attorneys, policy persons, and others so that people can find a solution and take action themselves. Brockovich is a terrific motivational speaker and she tells it like it is: “Superman is not coming. We have to begin to be our own heroes again.” Maybe though, we could use a little help to get us started from superwoman Erin Brockovich.