Slow-Motion Disaster and Extreme Weather: Five Questions for Judith Helfand

A screen shot of the title screen of the movie Cooked.

Filmmaker Judith Helfand wants to know, why are the impacts of natural disasters felt in such uneven ways? In 1995, a heatwave struck Chicago and more than 700 people died. Those affected were overwhelmingly concentrated in poor and low-income neighborhoods where residents lacked access to air conditioning and often felt unsafe going outside to seek relief. Helfand’s new film, Cooked, aims to show how natural disasters—and attempts to prepare for them—reveal structural inequalities that make poor communities and communities of color vulnerable to extreme weather events.

I interviewed Judith Helfand when she visited the university for a screening of the film. Our conversation touches on environmental justice, slow violence, and Helfand’s extensive use of maps to reveal the inequalities in both disaster preparedness and its responses.

1. Your film, Cooked, offers poignant insight into poverty as an environmental justice issue. Most scholarship on environmental justice has focused on issues of toxic dumping in poor communities of color. Can you elaborate a bit on how disaster sheds light on this particular kind of injustice?

A portrait of Judith Helfand.

Judith Helfand, director of the documentary film Cooked.

Poor people always get hurt the worst. They have the hardest time recovering and it’s because the injustice was there to begin with. On top of the toxic dumping, that very same neighborhood has probably been divested of resources for a long time. It could be the result of intentional legislative redlining from years earlier. The long-term impact of that kind of divestment and a lack of economic infrastructure means that there’s a greater chance of people dealing with health disparities on a day to day basis which puts them in a much more vulnerable position. There’s a lot less chance that they have equity that’s saved and a safety net. There’s a lot less chance that they have a place to go if they need to leave. So all of those factors combined make everyday life really quite difficult. The sudden disaster, like an extreme weather event, just elevates the everyday, underlying disaster that they’ve been dealing with, but no one’s really been paying attention to.

One has to rethink what disaster means.

The reason why I wound up being so interested in the world of disaster preparedness is that you can use an extreme weather event to pull the curtain off something and look at everyday life in a radically different way. It enables us to look at something that we want to deny every single day, which is the long-term impact of structural racism and how that leads to extreme poverty and extreme disenfranchisement.

The only agencies that we have in our country that have the words emergency or disaster attached to them are never about poverty, never about health. It’s never about everyday life, it’s just about the one off disasters.

2. I was particularly struck by your narration when Mayor Daley describes the elevation of “non-violent deaths” during the heat wave . Tell me a bit about the kinds of structural violence you discovered in Chicago—and in the US more broadly—during the filmmaking process, and why “violence” offers the most accurate register for these kinds of deaths.

The term nonviolent just really struck me because when I think of non-violence, I always think about it in terms of protest and resistance, like we’re here to tell you about this egregious thing that’s going on and we’re not doing it with guns, we’re not doing it with bombs, we’re doing it with our bodies. We’re on the line.

A fire hydrant sprays water onto a Chicago street during the 1995 heat wave.

A fire hydrant sprays water onto a Chicago street during the 1995 heat wave. Many of the city’s poorest residents had no access to air conditioning during the extreme heat. Image courtesy of Judith Helfand.

When I was watching that footage of Mayor Daley and he said, “non-violent deaths,” I thought, I can’t believe you’re using the term non-violent like that! And then, of course, I thought of Rob Nixon’s term, slow violence. It is the best way that I have ever heard anyone talk about the violence of extreme poverty and the violence of the long-term impact of racism, or the violence that comes from living in a food desert, or the violence that comes from living on a Main Street that is basically shuttered and is dangerous just by virtue of the fact that no one’s really around.

Slow violence is a slow-motion disaster. I’m beginning to understand what that means and how much more dangerous it is, in in a way, than fast violence because fast violence gets in the news and slow violence is just background noise that we stopped paying attention to.

I was so taken aback by Mayor Daley’s words because I felt like he was really playing games with language. In his mind, that use of language was okay; no one is being killed by a bullet, so therefore I guess it’s not bad? Therefore it’s not our fault? Therefore we don’t know whose fault it is because no one pulled a trigger? It gave me this amazing opportunity to rewind and let that sink in—to let the audience think, what does non-violent mean to you? What does violence mean? Who gets to use that word? The word non-violent makes it seem like natural deaths. No, they were the most unnatural deaths that you could ever imagine.

3. You make extensive use of maps in the film. These are documents that do a number of things. Those shown by the city’s epidemiologist reflect the kind of violence we just discussed, but the redlining maps, and, arguably, the disaster preparation maps, actively inflict violence on the communities most at risk. Can you elaborate on this notion of what I would call cartographic violence?

The map shows where heat-related death occurred during the 1995 Chicago heat wave. High-poverty areas are also noted on the map. Image courtesy of Judith Helfand.

I see those maps as making great assumptions about who lives somewhere and who doesn’t while they’re making decisions. The maps are making decisions about who gets to live and who gets to die quickly or slowly because it’s all about resources, and it’s all about investment and divestment. Those kind of maps determine where money flows and where money doesn’t flow. It determines insurance. It determines everything that underlies the security, fortitude, and bench strength of a community.

I see the disaster preparedness map as a map that determines allocation of resources in highly inequitable ways. In a disaster preparedness planning scenario they’ll ask a public health person to populate a map, perhaps, with how many people are being treated for diabetes, because we need to know how much diabetes medication to have on hand somewhere. They will get a sense of where is the most diabetes, where is the most hypertension, where is the most heart disease. You could probably also say that that’s where the most empty lots are, that’s where the most high schools have closed, that’s where the biggest poverty rate is, that’s where the most unemployment is. That might be where the most people who have a family member in prison live.

By thinking about it all ahead of time, you’re looking at the current disaster, how it will scale up when there’s something really horrible that happens. I just don’t see why we can’t utilize the resources that we clearly and obviously have in a radically different way if we just rethink what we mean by the term disaster.

4. You have a brilliant line in the film about the dilemma many Englewood residents face between staying safe and staying cool. But isn’t this a paradox? How can they stay safe in the face of a changing climate if they can’t stay cool?

Staying safe means that you’re able to afford air conditioning and you could turn it on, but if you don’t feel safe going to a cooling center because your neighborhood doesn’t make you feel safe, then you’re in double jeopardy. You don’t feel safe turning on your air conditioner because, if you do, you have to make a choice between paying for your meds and staying safe. It’s crazy, the juggling that these elders are having to do.

A new brand of first responders are building resilience and reinvesting in the community. 

One could probably trace that back to the long-term slow violence of living in a redline neighborhood where your house has been incredibly devalued even though everybody wants your land and can’t wait to buy it. It’s been devalued because you’re considered to be living in a high-risk neighborhood, and that sort of chips away at your assets and your income, what you’re able to live on every month.

A term that we throw out in the movie is “a new brand of first responder.” The new brand of first responder is the person who does diabetes intervention and comes to you on a daily basis, or someone who is trying to help you get back into the health care system or get you into eating in a different way. They might say, “I know it’s a little hard for you to get to that grocery store, but did you know that around the block is Growing Home? They’re selling these vegetables, and they’ll sell it to you at a very reduced rate. They’ll even talk to you about how to cook it.” If we put all these pieces together, there will be a new social network of strength that you trust, a face-to-face network that could slowly rebuild this community.

Workers cut vegetables in a greenhouse.

Growing Home, located in Chicago, IL, offers farm based training for people with employment barriers. Growing Home sells produce to residents of the Englewood neighborhood at reduced prices. Photo by Andrew Collings, 2016.

I think that there’s a whole new brand of first responders who are doing extraordinary work at building resilience and reinvesting in the community. They are building their community back up and that’s where I think the disaster dollars should be going. One has to rethink what disaster means to do that.

5. The city’s extreme weather preparation planning report represents extreme weather with a stylized sun and a snowflake. One of the things I’ve come across in my research on heat waves is that people often dismiss them as not disasters at all—“It’s summer, it’s supposed to be hot!” They are simply excesses of the normal. You suggest instead that the city should use a mobile refrigerated morgue to signal extremity. Why and how does that offer a wake-up call to the privileged communities for whom these kinds of disasters are largely invisible?

That report was like their way of saying, “these are going to be our visual take homes from this summer when 739 people died in one week.” You have an extreme weather report, you use the word extreme, and then you show the least extreme thing. You use an iconography that just looks like seasons, a sunbeam and a snowflake. It’s not even an icicle, it’s not even someone shivering, it’s just a snowflake. My kid would just say, “it’s snowing outside.”

Now if she saw a big huge truck, she’d say, “wow, that’s an emergency.” Big huge trucks are for emergencies. Snowflakes are for when it’s time to go outside and have a snowball fight. I just think it’s funny and ironic. I’m really interested in toxic comedy. That’s what I call this kind of filmmaking, which is looking at everyday life and cutting it in such a way so that you see the irony factor, the dark humor factor, the shame factor, the denial factor, what enables us to actually live and work every single day without standing on top of a roof and shrieking all the time, because really we could. There are enough horrible things going on, it could demobilize us. So how is it that we’re able to live with all of that at the same time?

How do you live with horror? That’s what I think this movie is exploring. How we are able to live with horror on a daily basis and then, every once in awhile, we realize that we have to do something about it. That was why I suggested, “what if you put that truck up there?” That would have been extreme. The city employee’s answer was just amazing to me: “Oh, we couldn’t do that. We want people to remember it, but don’t rub their faces in it.” I guess that’s what most public officials have to figure out, how to do that tender balance of, “I want to report to you what’s going on, but I don’t want you to get freaked out because then I’m really gonna have to address it.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Featured image: The title screen of Judith Helfand’s film, Cooked. The film reveals, she says, “the long-term crisis of pernicious poverty, economic, and social isolation and racism.” Image courtesy of Judith Helfand.

Judith Helfand is a director and producer whose films focus on chemical exposure, heedless corporate behavior and environmental injustice. Her films about these dark worlds are personal, highly-charged and entertaining. In addition to Cooked (2018), Helfand’s films also include the Sundance award-winning and two-time Emmy nominated film Blue Vinyl (2002) and its Peabody Award-winning prequel A Healthy Baby Girl (1997), both of which were co-directed with Daniel B. Gold. Helfand co-founded Working Films, one of the nation’s first non-profits dedicated to engagement, in 2009, and Chicken & Egg Pictures, a non-profit film fund dedicated to supporting women documentary directors with strategic grants and creative mentorship, in 2005. Website. Twitter. Contact.

Richard C. Keller is Professor in the Departments of Medical History and Bioethics and History at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where he is also Associate Dean of the International Division. He is the author of Fatal Isolation: The Devastating Paris Heat Wave of 2003 (Chicago, 2015) and Colonial Madness: Psychiatry in French North Africa (Chicago, 2007), and is co-editor (with Warwick Anderson and Deborah Jenson) of Unconscious Dominions: Psychoanalysis, Colonial Trauma, and Global Sovereignties (Duke, 2011). He is the winner of the 2013 William Koren, Jr. Prize from the Society for French Historical Studies. His last piece for Edge Effects was “Death, Burial, and Citizenship.” Website. Contact.