‘Love Canal’ will build on the actor’s activist credentials.
If filming Boyhood over the span of 12 years took it out of Patricia Arquette, you’d never be able to tell. Aside from starring in three upcoming projects – Ben Stiller’s Escape at Dannemora, Toy Story 4 and Kirsten Dunst’s directorial first The Bell Jar – Deadline are reporting that the actor will make a directorial debut of her own with Love Canal.
Penned by Brad Desch, whose Blacklist-awarded screenplay became Fathers & Daughters, the drama will tell the story of one of America’s worst environmental disasters, in which thousands of residents of a Niagara Falls, NY neighborhood were unknowingly subjected to toxic chemical exposure for years.
Arquette’s film is based on The Canal, Will Battersby’s upcoming, partly crowd-funded documentary about the ’70s catastrophe and the plight of current Love Canal residents. Battersby is also co-writing a book on the tragedy, and is one of the producers overseeing Arquette’s project, so it’s likely that Love Canal will benefit from his expertise and obvious passion for the story.
What happened at Love Canal is a shocking tale of neglect and injustice, and one that deserves wider attention; something all three of these projects will help to achieve. Arquette’s drama will likely attract new audiences, though, expanding on the reach of Battersby’s non-fiction projects.
Although Love Canal will be a period drama set in the ‘70s – the era in which the scandal first broke – the full story begins earlier.
In 1942, the Hooker Chemical Company obtained permission to convert a partially-dug canal near the city of Niagara Falls into a landfill site. The canal had been an ambitious industrial project in the late 1890s, but had flopped after several economic crises and Nikola Tesla’s development of the alternating current supply system threatened its money-making potential.
For ten years, the Hooker Company dumped more than 21,000 tons of industrial waste into the 16-acre site. When the landfill was eventually closed in 1952, it was covered in clay, leaving no trace of what had been. The area was sold back to the city and soon, it became Love Canal, a working-class neighborhood home to more than 900 families.
Not until the ‘70s did the area’s toxic secret fully reveal itself. As chemicals started to leak from the former landfill site, plants began to shrivel and die, turning gardens from a healthy green to a diseased black. Children returned home from playing outside with burns on their bodies. Noxious puddles oozed out of basement walls and the local schoolyard, while unusually high rates of asthma, epilepsy, birth defects and miscarriages began to alarm residents.
Many of the neighborhood’s concerned inhabitants were housewives like Lois Gibbs, whose children were increasingly afflicted by unexplained illnesses. Galvanised by the apathy of the authorities, Gibbs and the rest of Love Canal’s worried residents banded together and began campaigning for national attention and decisive action. The Love Canal Parents’ Movement, a grassroots activist effort spearheaded by the determined Gibbs, was born.
The Movement’s door-to-door research efforts illuminated the extent of the contamination – particularly the high rate of birth defects – but state officials dismissed their findings as “useless housewife data”. It was not until the state conducted its own surveys in the late ‘70s that the Movement’s suspicions were officially confirmed: some of the chemicals leaking from the site were known carcinogens.
When President Jimmy Carter finally ordered the complete evacuation of Love Canal in 1980, it was thanks to the tireless efforts of women like Gibbs, who had fought for justice for their families and neighbors for years. Their legacy has extended beyond the ’70s and ’80s, too: their campaign directly led to the creation of Superfund, a still-running Environmental Protection Agency program responsible for the clean-up of areas contaminated by hazardous waste disposal. The successful efforts of Love Canal’s housewives to secure justice for their community also sparked the modern grassroots environmental movement, inspiring thousands of everyday citizens to campaign for the right to a safe and clean environment.
Given her own portfolio of activism, it’s no wonder Arquette is drawn to this project. She is, of course, an outspoken campaigner for equal pay (see her Best Supporting Actress acceptance speech at the 2015 Oscars if you’re in doubt). But her activism efforts are more diverse than you might know: recently, she took part in the anti-DAPL protests and the Women’s March, and she has also been quietly raising funds and awareness for PETA, GLAAD and breast cancer charities for years. Post-Katrina, she organised disaster relief efforts amongst the cast and crew of Medium (the paranormal police procedural in which she starred), and in 2010, her foundation GiveLove launched a campaign to improve sanitation in Haiti’s earthquake relief camps. GiveLove’s ecologically-focused efforts in Haiti, the Standing Rock Reservation and around the world attest to Arquette’s environmental interests, and suggest that Love Canal’s story will be a perfect debut for a passionate director with such a keen sense of injustice.