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I made a film about a man with cancer, and became an unaccidental activist

The first time I met Dewayne “Lee” Johnson, he really didn’t want to talk to me. Suffering horribly from a painful and disfiguring form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma—on the skin--Lee was literally sick and tired of strangers asking him how he felt about challenging one of the planet’s most notorious chemical companies.
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In August 2018, Lee went to trial against Monsanto Co. claiming that the company’s weed killing chemical glyphosate (the world’s most widely used herbicide) was to blame for the cancerous lesions that covered nearly his entire body. Lee had worked as a school groundskeeper, spraying toxic herbicides as part of his daily routine, before an accident left him soaked in the chemical Ranger Pro, the commercial grade version of Roundup. Media from around the world hounded Lee for interviews, but he felt the attention was invading his family’s privacy and eating into the little time doctors told him he had left to live.
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As a documentary filmmaker for 3 decades, I’m used to having to parse reluctant voices. The ethics of engagement is perhaps the most important and complicated aspect of documentary making, and it only really works—on all levels, including both moral and story—when there is open and trusting collaboration. Eventually, Lee and I reached that level of trust, something I continue to be honored by and deeply grateful for. He knew that his story might help people become aware of the dangers of glyphosate and other widely-used pesticides. He also knew that he could inspire other injured people who were also seeking justice. Some of the scenes are hard to watch, but we included them because he really wanted us to show what it took just for him to get up every morning, day after day.
Now, our film – Into the Weeds: Dewayne “Lee” Johnson vs. Monsanto Company – is being released in over 600 theatres across the country for one day only, October 3. The film follows Lee, his court case, and his struggle against cancer. It gives voice to other plaintiffs in the same situation. But it also telescopes out to larger issues: corporate malfeasance, agency capture, the limitations of mass torts as a tool for justice and the systemic effects of pesticide use on human and planetary health.
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There are many explanations as to why countries around the world allow risky, cancer-causing chemicals such as glyphosate to be used routinely. These chemicals are used on farms, carrying their residues into the foods that we eat. They are sprayed over city parks and playgrounds, on residential lawns, and in national parks. They pollute the water we drink and the air we breathe. Many have been linked to cancers, reproductive problems, and other human health concerns.
They have also been shown to be equally – or more - damaging to biodiversity and wildlife. We screened the film and hosted a panel at the Biodiversity COP in Montreal in December 2022. Participating countries pledged to protect 50% of biodiversity by 2030. We have yet to learn, for the most part, how they plan to do this. Banning toxic chemicals and supporting organic regenerative farming is one way forward. Another is a complete heart and mind shift about big Ag, who we are as a species, systemic human inequalities, and the fate of the earth.
The proposed GSSP (‘golden spike’) for the Anthropocene Epoch is Crawford Lake, a small, deep body of water an hour from Toronto, where I happen to live. The laminations in the mud core are almost perfect, as is the record of human influence. Everyone is seeing the Oppenheimer film these days. The nuclear signal—precisely those tests recreated in the film—is widely accepted as the starting point of a geological period where humans change the earth more than all natural processes combined.
We’re at an inflection point around the world right now when it comes to chemical contamination. We face the effects of climate emergency, a precipitous decline in biodiversity, the rising rates of many cancers-- including childhood cancers-- and what appears to be a willful disregard on the part of governments and corporations for the health of people and the planet.
We have the European Union voting on whether to renew glyphosate as a permitted herbicide in two weeks—ironically 10 days before the integrated carcinogenicity study results from the Global Glyphosate Study are published. We have the PMRA in Canada trying to increase acceptable glyphosate residue levels in food. The US Environmental Protection Agency is doubling down on its backing of glyphosate, despite a federal court ruling last year that found the agency’s safety assessment was deeply flawed. Even worse, we have lawmakers in Washington, D.C., trying to pass laws that will make the situation worse, not better. Some are pushing for a provision to be included in the new Farm Bill that will prohibit state and local governments from adopting pesticides restrictions that are more protective than federal rules. This is a shocking attempt to muzzle ordinary communities and their democratic rights.
In piecing together this story over 4+ years, I’m absolutely outraged. When viewers witness the collective suffering, the dark corporate secrets, industry’s manipulation of science and the collusion with regulators – I think and hope they’ll feel as I do. Once you learn it, you really can’t ever unlearn it. Erica Chenoweth, a political scientist at Harvard University, studied decades of all varieties of protest around the world. Her research famously determined that all it takes to effect meaningful change is the engaged and non- violent action of a mere 3.5% of the population.
Let’s be the 3.5%. Jennifer Baichwal Into the Weeds: Dewayne “Lee” Johnson vs. Monsanto Company is playing October 3rd in 600+ theatres across the USA. For tickets and context go to www.IntoTheWeeds.com


  • Tabitha Kimani

    37 w

    let's rally towards the 3.5%.

    8
    • rosebellendiritu

      37 w

      @tabitha_kimani true and it's possible

      5
    • Sarah Chabane

      37 w

      This is such an important documentary to show corporate greed and how it is destroying the environment but also lives! Looking forward to the release in Europe

      5
      Welcome, let's solve the climate crisis together
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