Sick of asking why 

Cancer doc pairs personal strife with science

Director Chanda Chevannes's Living Downstream is a convincing and necessary documentary. It's also, despite its daunting subject matter, a movie you'll want to watch.

Noted biologist and author Sandra Steingraber was diagnosed with bladder cancer when she was 20 years old. She survived, but nearly 30 years later there is no guarantee her cancer won't come back. Like every cancer patient her first question was, "Why?" But because Steingraber's a scientist, she kept on asking. Living Downstream does not attempt to explain Steingraber's cancer, and despite her strong hunch that human-made chemicals in the environment where she grew up had a lot to do with it, neither does Steingraber.

"I am a population of one," she explains in the film. For a biologist, one is not a useful sample size. All she can claim to know, on the basis of her experience, is what it's like to have cancer. That makes Steingraber a likely mouthpiece for public health concern, but her success as the voice of the "environmental human rights movement" is due to conscientious scientific precision, her calm authority and her ability to construct a strong, concise narrative from a stack of mind-numbing study publications.

click to enlarge Living Downstream
  • Living Downstream

High incidence in cancer crops up in areas exposed to agricultural runoff, industrial waste and other sources of chemical contamination. While no one has been able to demonstrate an indisputable connection between environmental contamination and these cancers, it's a fact that industry and agriculture have released and continue to release carcinogens. Carcinogens, by definition, cause cancer. People die of cancer.

Steingraber's voice literally dominates the film in the form of interviews, lectures and voiceover, but Chevannes manages to provide context through the work of scientists across North America and the legacy of biologist activist Rachel Carson, plus a separate perspective on Steingraber's more intimate struggles. A few pitch-perfect moments provide all the emotional force you would expect from a "cancer movie," minus the unpleasant tang of emotional manipulation.

When confronted with unpleasant realities, looking the other way is natural. Living Downstream does an excellent job of engaging the viewer's curiosity and telling an inconvenient truth through the lens of interesting science and one fascinating woman.

Living Downstream screens at the Wilma Theatre Friday, March 5, at 7 PM, in celebration of Women's Voices for the Earth's 15th anniversary. $10/$8 advance at Rockin Rudy's.

Also Playing

The Irish Film Festival

Ding Dong Denny O'Reilly's History of Ireland sounds like an educational film for children or, perhaps, something with equally benign flavor like Rick Steves' European Insights. But, in fact, the computer animated short from Dublin's Brown Bag Films stars cheeky Irish comedian Paul Woodfull as the voice of Ding Dong Denny O'Reilly, a barfly with a surly brogue and unrefined sense of history. The film begins with a stereotypical American tourist who stops in at a pub called the Hairy Bowsie looking for an Irish heritage tour rendezvous point. Sitting at the bar is the Guinness-chugging Denny, who tells the Yankee a "true" tale of Ireland, which includes "facts" about ninth century Vikings, the Normans and their longbows, the famine, independence and Irish sex shops. It's a wee bit bloody and dark and, with a running time of five minutes, a sassy snack of entertainment.

Ding Dong Denny is one of nine films showing over a two-day Irish Film Festival at the Roxy Theatre this week. The event is part of this month's Irish Days, which includes the St. Patrick's Day Parade and other eating, drinking and music events around town. The inaugural film fest was dreamed up by an Irish men's organization in Missoula with the romantic and mysterious-sounding name of The Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH). Nothing mysterious about the festival's genesis though: Vice President Patrick Toomey says the idea sprang from a conversation over pints. Of course it did.

Other films at the festival include Mickybo & Me (2004) about two boys' unlikely friendship in 1970s Belfast, as well as the tragicomedy Garage (2007), about a gas station owner in mid-west Ireland. The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006) tells the story of two freedom-fighting brothers in 1920s Ireland, whereas the 2007 Academy Award winning film Once is a more contemporary Irish tale about two musicians on a quest to make a demo album.

And, to get you in the spirit—and so you know when to say "Sláinte!" and when to say "Feck!"—the event kicks off Friday, March 5, at 5 p.m. at the Roxy with a lesson in Irish toasts taught by Terry O'Riordian from the UM Irish Studies Program.

—Erika Fredrickson

The Irish Film Festival screens at the Roxy Theater Friday, March 5, and Saturday, March 6, at 6:30 PM nightly. $10 each night. Visit for more details.

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