A film that tells about the poisons of the largest petrochemical plant in Europe

No one would dream of it, but there are those who, with their eyes stretched out to the horizon of the clear waters of the charming coast, raise a cry of pain and strike the heart with the words: “Better cancer than starvation“. Not the typical line one would read in a movie script, though in this case uttered in the context of a work destined for the big screen, but a dramatic truth that tells how on the east coast of Sicily, where historic ruins like those jut out from the Greek Theatre, which is visited by millions of tourists every year, is one of the largest petrochemical centers in Europe. A geostrategic area of ​​great importance, halfway between the Suez and Gibraltar canals, which has been poisoning the environment and people since 1949; without anyone, not even its own inhabitants, realizing in time what was happening. In fact, the amount of toxic chemicals that have contaminated the soil, air and water is very high and threatens the health of the inhabitants of this area between Augusta, Priolo, Gargallo and Melilli, which extends to the gates of Syracuse.

A story largely unknown to the general public not only in Europe and the world, but unfortunately also in Italy and even in Sicily itself, which today comes as a blow to the stomach thanks to “Toxicity”, a documentary that narrates and gives voice to all the people who resist and live their daily lives next to these factories, whose smoking chimneys are the panorama that forms the backdrop of the landscape that dominates the beaches.

The French director did it Francois Xavier Destors and a geographer and photographer from Palermo Alfonso Pinto who, seventy years after the arrival of the first refineries, decided to explore the themes of ecological and health sacrifice and restored the plurality of viewpoints of the inhabitants themselves. A small film work, to the completion of which many contribute, each with their own story, a truth that has a tragic end for all. So here Don Palmiro, the priest who, by choosing to list the names of those unknown to most cancer victims during a religious ceremony, began to reveal a dramatic reality, unfortunately paid the price for his devotion to the health of his fellow citizens; then there they are Lina and her daughter Chiarathe latter has been struggling since the age of 7 with a rare congenital developmental defect; Andrew who during his working life tried in his small way to reduce the damage caused by industry to the environment and health. It still is Nino whose blindness does not ultimately prevent him from sharing memories of a lost world Giusi who, since losing his father to an occupational disease, has been fighting against everything and everyone in the name of environmental justice. A fight that is also about redemption vs a fate that “smokes” its chimneys, winds through «abandoned villages, in arid lands and polluted beaches of an area that tells of another Sicily», we read in the synopsis of the project, «the toxic one, abandoned to its post-industrial fate, in which the arrival of refineries allowed to overcome the woes of an ancient but precarious agricultural economy, where fishermen, farmers and shepherds gradually became workers and thus avoided the inevitable fate of emigration”. Which might have been the best choice if, on reflection, the reward for not betraying one’s roots by leaving was a tragic fate that would have them say today better starvation than cancer.

“It’s part of a trilogy perspective dedicated to mass crimes, human madness and the excesses of our civilization,” explains the director, François-Xavier Destors, «with the first film shot in Rwanda (Rwanda, la surface de réparation, 2014) and the second in the arctic city of Norilsk, Siberia, one of the most polluted on the planet (Norilsk l’étreinte de glace, 2018). Before meeting Alfonso Pinto, who specializes in the study of urban worlds of the Anthropocene, I was completely unaware of the existence of this industrial area stretching more than twenty kilometers north of Syracuse. A territory that seems to have been left to itself and the pollution of the sky, land and sea. We explored it with a certain cinematic rigor to give the subject power and depth. Just as Vittorio De Seta took cinematography to explore human geography in The Lost World, we worked in a complementary way by transcending our points of view to try to explore how human beings evolve, how they understand and see their future. The complementarity of this approach and vision is the strength of the film.”

“Beyond pollution and petrochemicals,” explains the geographer, Alfonso Pinto, «contains a parable about all of humanity, which, starting with industrial modernity, decided with full conscience to sacrifice the well-being and health of many in the name of the privileges of a few, often disguised as the collective interest. The basis is the desire to reflect the very idea of ​​sacrificing the environment, a topic often addressed in the field of environmental struggles, obviously not as an abstract concept, but as a human and lived experience. Illness, work, extortion from the profession, general silence and sometimes hostility towards those who think that there is a deep injustice at the root of it all. The Petrochemical Center of Syracuse, its geography and history allow us to reflect on some fundamental themes that transcend local specifics: petrochemicals, the Anthropocene, the climate crisis and, on a smaller scale, post-war Italian industrialization, the development of the Southern Policy promoted by the governing party and their fundamental failure. After all, seventy years have passed since the arrival of the first refinery. That is more than enough time to carry out a social, political, economic and above all environmental and health assessment.”

The landscape as a character, with its experiences, its wounds, its memory, based on the narrative structure of “Toxicila”

“Obviously, there are inhabitants,” adds the director, “some of whom are the protagonists of the documentary, who inhabit this territory with all the power of their resilience/resilience, with many paradoxes and countless contradictions. The film is not told in the form of a reportage about a deed, but through the cinematography’s ability to reconstruct the imagination, where the place itself becomes a character and a body. The aim is then to reveal vital organs, tentacles and territorial boundaries through framing, movement, focal length, duration or rhythm. We hope we succeeded.”

Life stories that touch the heart create that empathic connection that won’t let you back down

“When someone asks me which of the people we met I liked the most, because maybe he touched me more than the others, I have some difficulty choosing,” concludes Pinto, “but if I really had to, I would say Andrea, the worker, one one of the first that I met after Don Palmiro, because I was always struck by his calmness and also the contradiction of a person who loves the environment, was outraged by the environment, even though he worked in a petrochemical plant. A mildly enlightened person who knows full well what the problems are, but will tell you he had to choose. And today he grows his vegetable garden there and knows well what the risks are. Perhaps he is the most surprising character because he sticks his finger in the wounds, also because he was a Legambiente militant. In fact, he founded the Priolo club, a village in the hinterland where the issue of the environment is taboo.

The use of archival materials, both from public resources such as Teche RAI, Archivio Storico Luce and the Audiovisual Archive of the Workers’ Movement, as well as from family films that were digitized by CRicd – Filmoteca Regionale, was essential for revealing the memory of the landscape. Sicilian.

Produced by Elda Productions (France) and Ginko Film (Italy) with the support of Eurimages, the Francia Italia CNC MIC fund, Sicilia Film Commission and Rai Cinema, but also with the patronage of Legambiente, it was natural that Sicily was the place from which to start the tour that will see him stop in many cinemas: on April 18 in Palermo, on the 19th in Messina and on the 20th and 21st in “his” Syracuse, in the presence of directors and protagonists. After that, it will be Rome, Brescia, Sicily again in Modica and Catania, and it will end in Venice and Puglia, where it will run in cinemas from May 2 to 6 from Taranto. But it’s just the beginning, because it’s not even out yet and it’s already been selected at Fipadoc in Biarritz and won special recognition at the Festival dei Popoli in Florence. That is why the path was laid out.


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