Regardless of the legitimacy of writer-producer-director-host D. Rutledge-Taylor’s claims that use of DDT could entirely eradicate malaria in Africa and that the Environmental Protection Agency’s 1972 ban on exportation of the chemical pesticide has caused millions of deaths, the speculative documentary “3 Billion and Counting” fails to clinch the argument. Casting himself as an objective intermediary, and liberally co-opting persuasion techniques employed by liberal-leaning filmmakers, Rutledge-Taylor makes a case dependent on an entire parallel universe of presuppositions. Pic, which bowed Sept. 11 in Gotham, decidedly preaches to a non-mainstream choir.
Diverse stock footage starts off with Friz Freleng’s 1943 malaria-prevention cartoon “Target Snafu”; the docu later taps animated graphics for a true/false checklist on DDT to clear up “misleading myths.” Fascinating newsreel excerpts showing fog machines mass-spraying DDT on American GIs before their overseas duty are used to support the notion that the substance is nontoxic (though this fails to address the possible danger of DDT exposure through ingestion rather than skin contact).
Ersatz homemovie clips unspool to familiarize viewers with Rutledge-Taylor (sample voiceover: “My father was a fourth-generation farmer in the Mississippi Delta … “), who serves as the film’s genial, folksy audience surrogate. Emphasizing human suffering and disparaging official U.S. relief efforts, Rutledge-Taylor and producer Helene Udy make lightning stopovers at clinics, hospitals, ominous mosquito-breeding grounds and malaria-ridden hot spots in South Africa, Mozambique, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Indonesia and India; lensing by occasional Fox News photographer Aaron Krummel is admirable for its workhorse resourcefulness.
The film’s historical focal point is the decision of William Ruckelshaus, head of the EPA under Nixon, to ban DDT. Once Michael Crichton (in a sampled C-SPAN bite) equates withholding DDT with genocide, all bets are off. He’s soon followed by a stacked deck of right-leaning talking heads who target pet bugaboos from birth control to organic food, the connections with the DDT ban often unclear. Margaret Sanger is depicted exclusively as a racist eugenicist, Rachel Carson condescendingly pitied as a confused soul, Greenpeace trashed (by dubious ecology expert Steve Forbes). President Obama’s pledge to end malaria by 2015 and Bill Gates’ billion-dollar donation for vaccine development are dismissed as “a waste of money.”
Clearly a connoisseur of the personalized documentary form, Rutledge-Taylor imitates other practitioners but, speaking strictly aesthetically, with far less flair. Following Morgan Spurlock’s lead in serving as his own guinea pig, Rutledge-Taylor redoes “Super Size Me” as “Insecticide Me,” chugging down a 75% DDT-spiked cocktail to certify its harmlessness.
Disingenuous attempts to penetrate the EPA (“It’s like Fort Knox!”) are a far cry from the engaging tongue-in-cheekiness of Michael Moore’s quixotic raids on GM headquarters.