The well-oiled, three-person machine behind The People vs. Agent Orange each brought their manifold backgrounds to the table in order to put together a film that involved equal parts investigative journalism, humanistic portrait of victims and fighters, and suspense thriller/detective story. Alan Adelson and his partner in film and life Kate Taverna previously made the historic documentaries In Bed with Ulysses and Lodz Ghetto, but beyond that, Taverna has edited more than 50 independent feature docs, shorts and broadcast films over a career spanning more than 35 years, including the acclaimed Pray the Devil Back to Hell, while Adelson wrote investigative articles in Esquire and The Wall Street Journal. Their collaborator Véronique Bernard has produced numerous documentaries across the globe.
Together they’ve told a story nearly 60 years in the making: how the use of chemicals in warfare in Vietnam continued a devastating, pernicious legacy for decades to come, and how two women bravely took on the chemical industry to demand accountability.
“The People vs. Agent Orange has a gripping urgency, especially as a reminder that the history of chemicals’ effects on our bodies is still being written and fought over, and that what a secretive industry is allowed to cover up, it will,” wrote Robert Abele in the Los Angeles Times.
The filmmakers collaborated on this interview for us as well, to talk about who did what in making People vs. Agent Orange, provide an update on the case the film’s co-star Tran To Nga brought into French courts and on how the two women are doing now, and reveal whether they think chemical corporations ever lose.
What inspired your storytelling choice? Why was it important to focus on the parallel stories of these brave women, instead of focusing on just one?
Alan: Wow, good for you to dive right in with such a discerning and challenging question!
My work on the documentary has stretched out for more than a decade. It all began at a party. A young actress approached me: “So you make documentaries. I just got back from Vietnam where I was a volunteer at an orphanage for children deformed by Agent Orange. They are the saddest human beings on earth and no one even knows about them. You have to make a film about them.”
I was resistant. Agent Orange seemed like an old problem in this world with many new ones.
But she persisted, showing me photographs of the deformed children she had cared for. Children with huge heads swollen from water on their brains. Withered, uselessly bent limbs. Fused fingers and toes.
The investigative reporter in me was aroused. If it could be shown that these poor humans had resulted from conscious decisions made by corporations that sacrificed human health and well-being for the sake of profits, this might be a cautionary tale worth telling, whatever the necessary time and effort.
A year’s research into the internal chemical company correspondence that had become part of the court records gathered in the course of “discovery” in the major Agent Orange court cases substantiated that the manufacturers of Agent Orange were indeed aware of the dioxin contamination and were even conspiring to cover it up, not to lose a hugely profitable cash cow.
Kate: It was a good two years later that Madame Tran filed her lawsuit in France against what were then 26 American chemical companies. We flew to France to interview this amazingly beautiful and determined woman and began building her story in the context of the corporate malfeasance we had already substantiated.
Two more years into the process, we learned of Carol Van Strum’s amazing work organizing against the aerial spraying of toxic herbicides in coastal Oregon. We were shocked to learn that even after the US military had ceased using Agent Orange because it was making our troops ill and was resulting in deformed births in their offspring, it was being used by the forestry industry in America’s Pacific Northwest. That was something few Americans were aware of then, and is still relatively unknown.
But here were two heroic women activists fighting the chemical companies from countries on both sides of the War in Vietnam. Tran’s lawsuit and the fight Van Strum was leading against herbicides in America would give the investigation contemporary relevance from both American and Vietnamese points of view.
Can you talk about the contemporary ramifications for this story? We have been going through a period where belief in science is at the center of most of our discussions, so I’m also curious how this rising movement in skepticism, or refusal to believe scientists, can relate to the story in this film, too?
Alan: Yes, the disbelief and obfuscation of the threats Agent Orange and other toxic herbicides pose has been fundamental in enabling the continued use of the chemicals.
Scientists began questioning the chemical war in Vietnam early on–to little or no avail.
Operation Ranch Hand, the American Air Force’s defoliation and food contamination campaign went on for a decade. Arthur Galston, a Yale scientist who had helped devise the formula for Agent Orange, led the campaign to stop its use on civilians, calling it “ecocide,” a term that is now a rallying call among environmental activists who are trying to codify environmental destruction as a new crime.
Véronique: To defend themselves, the chemical company scientists have insisted that the cancers and deformities being cited as the consequences of exposure to toxic herbicides were not caused by their chemicals. There are many ways to contract cancers, and many other factors can cause deformities. In the film, André Bouny, the prime mover in Madame Tran’s French lawsuit [and author of the book Agent Orange – Apocalypse Viêt Nam], quotes the chemical companies’ defense that there is no “proof” of what causes the illnesses and deformities. He answers: “The victims are the proof.”
Along those lines, what conversations would you like people to have after they watch your film? And where can they go to learn more?
Carol Van Strum receives a cheering ovation from an assembly of environmental law students when she says “We have a right to protect ourselves from being poisoned.” And that “if corporations have human rights according to the Supreme Court, they should be subject to capital punishment just like an individual would be.”
But in fact American communities today do not have the right to protect themselves because state laws are “pre-empting” and overturning local bans—against aerial spraying of herbicides in the Pacific northwest, and against fracking in Pennsylvania and many other states.
The film has been in virtual festival and cinema release for nine months prior to the PBS broadcast. Viewers are responding with outrage and incredulity that the environmental and health catastrophe is continuing. They are asking, How can our government allow this to go on? And what can we do to stop it?
We earnestly hope communities will be inspired by the activism of Tran To Nga and Carol Van Strum and the many people who are working with them to change the political dynamics to diminish the influence of corporate lobbyists and to empower the people to decide what’s best for them and their communities. We hope that if nothing else, The People vs. Agent Orange will awaken people around the world to shake off their environmental passivity and to fight actively for their health and their environment.
Our resources page will bring viewers to listings of some of the many organizations working on environmental issues and in support of the victims. Tens of thousands of people are working already to bring about the changes the documentary shows to be so necessary. But it will take millions of activists who are as committed to bringing about change as Tran To Nga and Carol Van Strum. Politicians are always referring to “our children” and what is necessary for the world they will inherit from us. Without fundamental change, they and their children and their children’s children will be carrying increased susceptibility to disease and deformity as a result of the exposure by our generation to toxins.
This is a beautifully made but rightfully unsparing film. Both women are very compelling protagonists and you get to know their personal journeys a bit—is that how you approached bringing audiences into it who may be scared off from watching this kind of story otherwise?
Alan: Yes, you are onto some of our strategic editing strategies. Carol Van Strum’s humorous recollections of the early letters she wrote as a child to urge people to protect the birds being killed in the Second World War and how she “became an activist,” and Tran To Nga’s poignant description of being a young mother working for Vietnamese liberation, only to be sprayed by Agent Orange and to lose her first-born…These are wonderfully human moments we hope will enhance viewers’ connections with the film—through its leading protagonists.
And we have remarked ourselves at common traits in our characters. Carol Van Strum and whistle-blower James Clary are both rescuers of animals, taking in donkeys, and horses and dogs and birds that are in need of care. We couldn’t help wonder if the same humane traits have encouraged them to “blow the whistle” on those who contaminate our environment and threaten our health while caring for otherwise helpless animals.
Even as people who know a lot more about this topic than most, was there anything that really shocked you in your research for it and in the making of it? Something you especially could not believe?
Alan: I was amazed to read the internal memoranda of the chemical company executives and toxicologists which come together to present a chorus of conspiracy. As lawyer Peter Sills characterizes them in the film, they are saying “We know it’s toxic. We’re going to sell it anyway.”
I suppose you could call my reaction to those documents “intellectual.” Far more visceral and emotional was the effect of seeing the deformed Agent Orange children we visited in Vietnam and what a burden they are on their families and the entire country. They are profoundly sad. They writhe and call out in helpless pain and need. Witnessing their suffering and their need for love and physical contact affected me deeply. I will never be able to forget them and never want to. We must do everything we can to care for them, and to prevent further acts of corporate avarice that will continue to cause ever more suffering.
On May 25, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-California) introduced H.R. 3518, the Victims of Agent Orange Relief Act of 2021, in the House of Representatives. She has tried through many sessions of Congress to secure support for Agent Orange victims—but her bills have never gained traction. “The United States has a moral responsibility to compensate the victims of the Agent Orange campaign,” Lee said in an interview with human rights lawyer Marjorie Cohn. “In the same way we are focused on beginning to repair the damage of systemic racism in the form of reparations, and the war on drugs with restorative justice, it is also our responsibility to try and atone for this disgraceful campaign during the Vietnam War.”
What’s one common myth you’d like to bust, around Agent Orange?
It’s a myth that the Agent Orange catastrophe is history. Toxic herbicides are a pressing human health, environmental and civic challenge facing our society today.
Can you update on the latest options for the case against these chemical companies going forward? I know Trần Tố Nga received some disappointing news but fights on. Can you tell us what you know of what lies ahead in this fight?
In Lincoln and Lane counties, Oregon, legal fights are underway to preempt preemption.
To allow citizens’ initiatives to have legal sway over corporate influence.
The dismissal of Madame Tran’s case in France was very much akin to the dismissal of the pleas by the Vietnamese victims for reparations. The French court did not address the issues of corporate malfeasance. Madame Tran, her lawyers, and her ever-building support network will now press the case on appeal.
One can only hope that at the very least, the fundamental issues posed by Tran’s case be addressed. A dangerous, defective product was produced and sold by companies that knew of its toxicity. A government and military that also had full opportunity to be informed of its dangers went ahead to spray many millions of gallons over Vietnam.
To ask a blunt question, do you think these humongous, trillion-dollar chemical companies can be defeated?
Alan: I certainly share your skepticism. Carol Van Strum says in the film that the chemical companies will never stop selling their contaminated products. And as you cite, the trillions of dollars of profits being reaped by the chemical industry assures us that it’s a business that will indeed go on and on. But in the past two years, we have seen a remarkable corrective force at work through the stock market, of all entities. Bayer, the German conglomerate, bought Monsanto at a time when lawsuits were building up from people who had used the herbicide Roundup and contracted soft tissue cancers.
Three court cases in the San Francisco Bay Area all went against Bayer/Monsanto, more and more claims were filed, and the company’s stock spiraled downward so much that it lost more in its combined value on the stock market than it paid for Monsanto in the first place. The damage to the corporation has left a dark cloud over it and resulted in a vote of no confidence by the stockholders.
Kate: And only last month, a court in the Netherlands found Shell Oil, one of the country’s largest corporations, had violated human rights by contributing to global warming.
We are all in very deep trouble because the environment is in such deep trouble, and because corporate profits continue to rule over our well-being. But there are signs of hope for change.
Conversation with the filmmakers courtesy Maysles Documentary Center
How do you work together as a team? Do you tag-team on different aspects of the filmmaking process.
Kate: I specialize in visualization and editing and co-directed the shoots in France, Vietnam, Vermont, Brooklyn, New Jersey and Oregon with Alan. I was on another project when Alan and Scott Sinkler went to Vietnam, so I made a list and asked for particular coverage and specific kinds of shooting. Give me rain, nighttime and countryside besides the itinerary with Mme. Tran.
I worked directly with the graphic artist, the animator, the sound designers, the mixer and found the composers, asking them if they would work together. I wanted a hybrid sound of East and West mixing classic Vietnamese instruments with western sounds. And Blake Leyh was brilliant at that in his rich arrangements of the recordings he made with Vân Ánh Võ (Vanessa Vo). They’ve actually produced a soundtrack album.
Alan produces and directs, has a strong journalistic background and helped build the story with footage we often had to chase down, investigative materials he went in deep to get including F.O.I. actions that went on long before I got involved in the project. He also kept up personal contacts and established trust with the characters.
Véronique has gone between us, often providing the deciding opinion regarding editorial choices, bringing her much needed energy and enthusiasm into the edit room with the kind of pointed observations necessary.
Véronique: And being French, I was able to handle much of the negotiating with our French interlocutors and have a close dialogue with Tran To Nga, whose untranslated memoir I was able to read. I also interviewed André Bouny while I was in Paris and liaised with the Évry tribunal administrators.
Alan: In sum, we have our specializations, but everyone is pitching in on everyone else’s territory. It’s an intense collaboration in which none of us shy away from expressing our opinions or from taking initiatives on behalf of the film.
Filmmakers Show How Agent Orange Catastrophe Did Not End with the Vietnam War | Blog | Independent Lens is written by Craig Phillips for www.pbs.org