Documentary Review: ‘Mossville: When Great Trees Fall’

Greetings again from the darkness. The film draws its title from both the town it studies and a Maya Angelou poem. It opens with a short excerpt from that poem; though not until we have watched documentarian Alexander Glustrom’s film do we fully understand the connection. Mossville is a rural community just outside Lake Charles, Louisiana. It was settled by free slaves in the 1800’s, and this is the story of how that history is literally being bulldozed from existence.

Mr. Glustrom makes the story personal by serving up the stories of Mossville residents Stacey Ryan and Erica Jackson, with Mr. Ryan getting the most attention since he is truly the last holdout. Holdout from what? Well that would be the massive industrial construction project of SASOL (South African Synthetic Oil Limited), which the state leaders excitedly announced would bring a $14 billion investment inside the Louisiana borders. We learn the Mossville population peaked at more than 8000, but after the SASOL land purchase, most of the community no longer exists.

Stacey Ryan is a holdout, and aerial views show the stunning transformation of the land from majestic trees and comfortable homes to acreage stripped of anything living that’s not operating heavy equipment … other than Mr. Ryan. His little plot stands out as an anomaly – a mobile home and battered pickup in the midst of a steady stream of bulldozers and dump trucks. Even after his utilities are cut off, Mr. Ryan remains. He explains that during his school days, he was referred to as “Greasy” because he was constantly working on cars. His mechanical skills allow him to rig up electrical, water, and sewer. He’s a resourceful guy fighting industrial facility encroachment.

“Fenceline community” seems to be an insufficient description of Mossville. An EDC spill … a toxic industrial accident … affected many in the area, and that’s where Erica Jackson comes in. She’s located in the “voluntary buyout” area, and explains how her family has been inordinately impacted by disease since the spill. The widespread health issues of her family and previous neighbors are addressed by an Environmental attorney, but it’s a story we’ve heard many times before. Corporate negligence and systemic racism seem to be ignored when it comes to “progress” and when capital investments are at stake. A reasonable middle ground seems possible, though that’s rarely the case.

Mr. Ryan states, “I elected to stay behind because there is no other place for me.” He has his own personal dreams for raising his son, and no one can spend this time with him and judge him as some radical or rebel … he even introduces us to the Mossville Sabretooth Squirrel! He’s simply trying to stay connected to his family roots, though deep down, he knows the days are numbered. There is no fairy tale ending, as this is the reality of a population that is outgrowing its home planet. Mr. Ryan states, “To them, I don’t exist.” This brings us back to the Maya Angelou poem: “They existed. They existed. We can be. Be and be better. For they existed.”

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