10 Jan 2022
Diane Mellen, Ed Asner, Dan Hirsch
A shocking, multi-level cover-up is at the centre of Toxic Sh!t, director Stacy Stone’s documentary which investigates a historic nuclear accident at the Santa Susana field lab in Simi Valley, California – and subsequent efforts from businesses, government and even local residents to brush the consequences under the rug.
The documentary uses a mixture of interviews, archival footage, hidden camera work and investigation to tell the story of a community that has been misled about the dangers of their homes, and the anger built from the devastating harms resulting from accidents at a nearby nuclear plant. From the origins of the nuclear plant, through to the ongoing court cases that continue to this day, the documentary is an in-depth account of the story, as much as it as a passionate and fiery statement.
The film is unapologetic in its condemnation of the corporations and regulatory bodies that it accuses of lying to the public over years. Producer Diane Mellen, who also stars in the film, drives much of the investigation and utilising covert methods to expose untruths fed to the public who live or are interested in living in the valley. These undercover operations do not expose any smoking guns themselves, but coupled with the meticulous extracting of jargon and clauses hidden in legal documents – they effectively paint a picture of a cover-up driven by greed and negligence. Expert testimony from activist Dan Hirsch, as well as whistle-blower revelations from former plant worker ‘Barry’ only add to the intrigue.
The documentary does stumble at points with its presentation. There are some rather jarring cutaways to metaphorical cartoons which feel out of step with the rest of the film. Repetitive music loops end up grating as well, and coupled with the cartoons and cutaways feel like an attempt to give the piece an edge which it really doesn’t require. Some prominent interviews in the film are also held over Zoom or Facetime – an unfortunately and inevitable necessity but for some, the quality of the interview is impacted by the remote hosting. One interview is held with the interviewee mid-drive, which ends up presenting as distracted and low-quality – despite interesting and important topics being discussed. The dulcet tones of guest narrator Ed Asner are also heard far too sparingly – the man could narrate paint drying and it would be entertaining.
The hour-long runtime is a strong design choice which allows the film to be concise and insightful without running into bloat or dragging. What can be achieved in 60-minutes does not need to be stretched over 90 or 120, and viewers who watch Toxic Sh!t will not come away feeling short-changed. Beyond the aforementioned inclusions that clash tonally, the film manages to communicate complex and sometimes scientific information about an issue many of its audience will not be familiar with in an effective fashion. The overall coherence is sometimes lost when the film diverges from its core topic, but it always comes back around to the Valley before long. And when the harrowing stories of residents – including children – who have become sick from exposure are raised, viewers will be engrossed regardless.
The mark of a good documentary is how well it communicates its topic to those who know nothing about the subject. The damage caused in Simi Valley is unknown to most by design. But Toxic Sh!t’s efforts to get the word out are important and effective – and it will certainly leave anyone who views it aware of the scandalous activities that threaten the residents. Aware, and angry.