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Vapor Trail exposes ecological crisis in Philippines

by Tim Strain / Film Columnist • April 11, 2011

ArtsEmerson will host a screening of VMA professor John Gianvito’s mammoth 264-minute documentary Vapor Trail (Clark) this Sunday evening. It is an auteur production: Gianvito spent extensive visits between 2006 and 2008 directing, producing, shooting, interviewing, and editing the film. Gianvito said the outrage he  felt towards the U.S.’s ecological mismanaging of the Clark Air Base in the Philippines compelled him to tell this epic story.

The film chronicles the stories of locals who were forced to deal with an environmental disaster when the United States hastily abandoned the base. After the Philippine Senate voted out the presence of the U.S. military in 1991, the U.S. did little clean up to the base that had already become known for its lax environmental standards. For many years, Clark and the Subic Naval Base were the biggest U.S. armed forces bases outside its territories, and ultimately caused even bigger problems.

The documentary shows that these Filipinos had no idea the danger they faced once the U.S. presence left. For years they had wondered why their children were constantly sick and their babies born prematurely. The film’s striking imagery of unexploded bombs left on beaches and news reports of the U.S. dumping chemicals and gasoline into the local water supply answered their questions.

“I read about this harrowing situation in a front-page investigative article in The Boston Globe in 1999,” said Gianvito in an email to the Beacon. “Most of [the Filipino villagers I interviewed] are individuals who have never been interviewed, never had their stories listened to by the world at large, and they have things to tell us.”

The titular vapor trail is in reference to those left behind by U.S. warplanes flying at high altitude. In that brief snapshot Gianvito conveys how quickly the U.S. leaves behind, and tries to forget, the debilitating effects its actions have on the environment.

The decision to make the film more than four hours long was significant to the director; he knew there isn’t much commercial viability for his work. “For me the length of the film is a political act. It is asking the viewer to engage in a more meaningful way with the people represented in the film and complex issues surrounding the impact of militarization on their lives and the life of their nation.”

When asked how he masked his bias against the U.S. government — often a goal of documentarians — he said, “It’s not masked.” He was drawn to the story from a “deep-seated concern over the ways the U.S. wields its power throughout the world.”

The film is composed of interviews with activists and victims of the ecological fallout, panoramic shots of the exotic locale, archival montages, and photographic and written testimonies of the land. As in his last two features, Profit motive and the whispering wind and The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein, the narrative is experimental in form and ambitious in scope. Gianvito compiled more than 90 hours of footage.

After four years of work on the project, he is enjoying displaying his film at festivals throughout the world, including the London Film Festival, Maine Film Festival, and Rotterdam International Film Festival. There is no rest for the weary, though. He is currently editing Vapor Trail (Clark)’s counterpart, Wake (Subic), compiled of footage he shot simultaneously with that in.

“I imagine it will be another year before Wake (Subic) is completed, and I suspect it will be nearly as long,” he said.