Humanity is at its best when we raise each other up and fight for a greater good. That is the ultimate virtue of being human: our capability to work together. Humanity is at its worst when we force each other to self-destruct and tear each other down. The ultimate failing of human existence is that it always seems like the latter happens far more often out of the two. Mossville, Louisiana is an entire community that was made subject to humanity tearing itself apart, and there was nothing they could do but try to run.
“Mossville: When Great Trees Fall”, tells their story. It’s a bleak tale, right from the outset we see a town void of hope, and how could they have any? Mossville was already a fenceline community, but SASOL (South African Synthetic Oil Limited) are buying up land left and right to build their industrial plants right on the land where freed slaves settled in the late 1800s. So many memories exist on this land, so many lives began and ended all in this small settlement. Now it’s all disappearing in the blink of an eye.
At its peak, Mossville had 8000 people living within its boundaries, when we get there that number is dramatically smaller. The story is told primarily from the perspective of one man, Stacey Ryan. Stacey is a mechanic who was born and raised in Mossville, like his father and grandfather before him. He loves his town, so much so that when everyone else was bought out around him, he said no and stayed right in the middle of the construction zone alone in his mobile home. Stacey’s family succumbed to multiple bouts of cancer, including both of his parents. The likelihood that this was brought on by spoiled drinking water and constant emissions near their house is high. It is for them he stays and fights the impossible fight.
Stacey’s story is the incarnation of the modern-day reality of the USA; there is so little empathy, and so little unity, that when people like him fall through the cracks, no one is there to help them back up. Director, editor and cinematographer on this project, Alexander Glustrom, captures the sheer tragedy of Mossville with a sombre but utterly captivating style and does its residents more justice than those in power ever did. The desolate imagery of modern-day Mossville hurts to look at. Smothering the barren dirt and cut down trees is the fact that the very souls of people were torn down and replaced with mechanical diggers and the constant plodding of trucks. With how sensitively Glustrom approaches this, he proves he has all the potential to be a cinematic master of documentaries, and if he continues to tell these stories, he will be.
The score by Carlos José Alvarez is mesmerising and heartbreaking. Mossville dies before our eyes to such melancholy music that even I, an Australian on the other side of the world, felt regret for not being able to help these people who didn’t deserve what was happening to them. And that’s precisely how we should all feel, because it isn’t just happening in the USA, it is happening worldwide, right now. Briefly, the film takes us to South Africa where SASOL started. Here, amid smog, we bear witness to the atrocities that have seen black communities settled downwind of the emissions from the world’s largest producer of CO2, Secunda. It is cruel and inhumane, and there is next to nothing they or anyone can do about it.
I’d love to proclaim that the ending hits a happy note, but it doesn’t, to say otherwise would be a lie. I won’t say how it ends though, see for yourself. This documentary is nothing short of an essential human experience for anyone looking to make a difference in the world. And to my knowledge, this film has not had nearly enough eyes upon it so far this year, I genuinely hope that changes, for Stacey especially, he deserves people to know his story.
Mossville captures the devastation of the destruction of a community with grace and empathy and has a message that will reverberate across generations. Your heart may break as you watch, but at least the memories of the people who once lived there won’t be forgotten.
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