When Lars Edman and William Johansson Kalén were at film school together they had no idea how long it took to make a movie. “We didn’t have any idea,” laughs Kalén. “I remember watching a film that took three years to make, and I was thinking, ‘Oh, shit. Three years? That’s a hell of a long time. Couldn’t they have finished it a bit quicker?’” Now, as the duo make their IDFA debut with the world premiere of their second feature-length doc “Arica” in Frontlight, they know only too well what it’s like to be in it for the long haul. Says Kalén, “If only we’d known when we started that it would take 15 years…”
The story of “Arica” is surprisingly personal: Edman was born in Chile but grew up in the Swedish village of Boliden, where the mining company of the same name was first established. Edman therefore was horrified to learn of the events of 1984, when Boliden shipped 20,000 tons of poisonous waste to be processed and buried in the Chilean desert. Instead, the waste just stood in a pile, where children made slides and mud pies, as the nearby town of Arica expanded around it. The effects on the local community were horrific: in the years that followed, residents developed cancer, babies were born with birth defects, and cases of arsenic poisoning rose to alarming levels.
Edman’s disgust led to the 2009 film “Toxic Playground,” in which he and co-director William Johansson Kalén first drew attention to the disaster. In Sweden, there was some media attention around the issue, but it quickly fizzled out. Says Kalén, “There was quite a lot of fuss after the first film, at least in Sweden, with [politicians] coming out and discussing it. And so we were thinking, like, ‘Okay, this will actually lead somewhere—something will happen. But then after some time it just went quiet.”
Surprisingly, the filmmakers weren’t looking to shame Boliden, they just wanted them to do the right thing. “Everybody told us, ‘Okay, you can talk about this in terms of moral responsibility, but there’s no legal responsibility in this case,’” says Kalén. “So that’s what we believed during all this time.” A couple of years later, that changed when they heard from Lewis Gordon, a U.S. attorney with a background in environmental causes and a special interest in what would later be called “toxic colonialism.” Says Edman, “We heard from [Gordon] that he and his colleagues had seen the film and that they were investigating the possibilities of taking Boliden into court—[and they] would give us an opportunity to follow this case from the inside.”
As Gordon and his team seek reparations for the people of Arica, the film unfolds on two continents, referring back to “Toxic Playground” and even seeing the return of a major character in that film, Rolf Svedberg, who as Boliden’s former head of environmental issues, has a few surprises up his sleeve this time. “Arica,” therefore, is actually a sequel of sorts, and it’s unusual for a social-issues film of its kind, since the filmmakers actually know more than the experts do at the outset.
There’s also a rare lack of ego: Edman is our modest host for the journey to Chile, where he is an exemplary ambassador for his cause. Was he always intending to be frontman? He shrugs. “I guess it was me being born in Chile and having that special connection to the two countries that was the main thing in having me as a protagonist in the film, and being an onscreen guide for the viewers from both countries.”
He and Kalén work perfectly as a team, with Kalén on DoP and editing duties. “Lars and I are both very much in synch, I think, as people,” he says, “and I think in order to make a film like this work, you need to be very humble. You need to pick your fights and listen—you need to respect the person you’re working together with. Lars is the main protagonist, but I see a lot of myself in his role as well, of course, because I’m from the same town, and all the things that he feels about taking responsibility is something that I feel as well. So [when I’m behind the camera] it’s not so much a question of directing Lars as just talking about what we want to express with different situations and different scenes—because what you see on screen is what actually happens in front of the camera. It’s not provoked.”
Any other friendship might well have been tested to breaking point on a project like this; indeed, the pair had more than 150 hours of film from their visits to Arica alone—on top of filming the court case, which lasted eight weeks, they also had to listen to every audio file of every session that they couldn’t attend. Says Kalén, “Our editor, Göran Gester, who has been in this industry since the ’70s and made a lot of really complicated films with many generations, told us that this was the most difficult one he’d ever had to put together, because there are so many different pieces. We wanted everything to work: there’s the human story, but we also we wanted the legal story to make sense.”
It’s hard to believe the initial cut was around four hours, since the dramatically downsized 97-minute version is so lean and effective. Was it hard to focus, knowing that so much was riding on this court case? “Yeah,” says Edman, “especially considering all the friends we’d made in Chile doing this—we’ve been on the ground there for 15 years, meeting families, meeting people. They are always in the back of our minds, because they were also following the legal procedures. This meant so much to them: their hopes, their dreams and their wishes for a better future. I do feel honored to be part of their life, hopefully representing them in some way. But it’s been tough.”
Asked what they’ve learned from this project, Edman takes a deep breath and a pause. “That justice is very complicated,” he decides. “When we hear the word ‘justice,’ when people and companies go to court, we expect that they will be playing on the same, level field. But with the kind of resources that a company like Boliden has, as you see in the film, they can produce any kind of arguments they want, with help from experts. And that just makes you question the whole setup, the whole system.”
To find out more about the situation in Arica, visit: http://toxicjustice.org/