FALLON, NV: DEADLY OASIS
AWARDS & FESTIVALS
ITVS/Lincs Production with KLVX-PBS Las Vegas, US Broadcast rights are held by PBS. All other rights available.
The Hot Springs International Documentary Film Festival
Lake Arrowhead Film Festival, Best Documentary
Hazel Wolfe Environmental Film Festival, Seattle
Wild and Scenic Environmentak Film Festival
Cinevegas Film Festival
Singapore International Film Festival
Capitol Hill, U.S. Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Health, Washington, D.C. (Scheduled for March 9, 2004) Sierra Club, California Chapter
One by one the children of Fallon are falling…to cancer. Since 1999, sixteen children have been diagnosed with leukemia, in this rural Nevada town with a population of 8,000. The film probes the loaded question of a “cancer cluster” through the eyes of the children and their families who challenge medical, government and military experts, desperate for answers to what has made their children sick.
One by one the children of Fallon have been falling…to cancer. Since 1999, 16 children have been diagnosed with leukemia, in a town with a population of 8,000. The residents of this quiet, ranching community and “Top Gun” Naval airbase are struggling with the reason why.
The filmmaker entered into the community when just six kids have fallen sick. The film follows one central family and two other families as they go through the gut-wrenching process of seeking treatment for their children while simultaneously questioning the investigation process which involves government, media and environmental activists converging on Fallon to get to the bottom of what has been called the “King of all cancer clusters.”
Five-year old Dustin gets a painful shot of chemotherapy as his parents, Brenda and Reto Gross describe the horror of facing the unfathomable. Other parents haltingly recall the day when their child got diagnosed. A journalist from Reno, Frank Mullen walks down the main street of the town during a Fourth of July parade and rattles off the litany of possible causes: Fallon’s drinking water contains one of the highest levels of arsenic in the U.S., over 100 parts per billion, considered hazardous by the EPA, but not a known carcinogen. The naval base and its numerous training flights fly over Fallon, emitting toxic jet fuel into the environment. A thriving ranching base, crops are regularly sprayed with pesticides. And forty years ago, “Project Shoal,” a nuclear bomb was tested underground on the outskirts of the town. Yet there are no outstanding clues.
We meet six-year old Zac Beardlsey, bloated and exhausted from treatment. His mother takes him to meet Hilary Clinton, who has come to town to calm the community, promising along with Senator Harry Reid of Nevada much-needed support and funds. Then there is seven-year-old Ana, vomiting on the playground, sick from her chemotherapy. Her father, Matthew Warneke puts on a brave face, saying her diagnosis was the breaking point, the statistic that put the whole town on the map.
Then Fallon is rocked by the first death, ten-year old Adam Jernee. All the “cluster families” attend his memorial service, held in the town park. After giving a small speech, Adam’s best friend, Connee, starts searching the internet for information on nuclear testing in Nevada, while yet another case is announced, bringing the number to thirteen.
We meet the nervous Dr. Todd, the Nevada State epidemiologist who tries to calm an increasingly panicked community. A mother bursts into tears and asks, “Should we move, what can you tell us?” Ana’s father assures everyone that the town and the Mayor have been supportive, he pleads that people “remember it’s the kids we are here for.”
Meanwhile, Brenda and Reto Gross express frustration with how slow the investigation is going, bogged down with politics and paperwork. The Centers for Disease Control come to town to announce they are breaking their two-decade long moratorium on studying clusters to take blood and cell samples from case families and a control group. Dr. Rubin, the lead CDC researcher, tells Brenda that science has reached a point where cutting-edge toxicology research tools are now available to apply to the mystery. “We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t think we could find an answer, she tells Brenda.
The kids are amazing, in hospital rooms and at home, in school and with their families they are small heroes, teaching the entire community the value of life and how precious it is. The mayor and his wife talk about how special the town is while the families gather for monthly support meetings. Still no news is forthcoming on the cause. As more scientists and specialists bombard the community, the parents start taking things into their own hands.
A local family practioner, Dr. Gary Ridenour introduces his theory about JP-8, a relatively new jet fuel used in the Gulf War by the U.S. Navy, and pumped through the town in a buried, forty-year old pipeline, owned by the Fortune 500 company Kinder-Morgan. He expresses doubts with the official reports from Kinder Morgan that there are no leaks in the pipeline. His views are echoed by Ana’s Dad, Matthew Warneke. who attends a JP-8 seminar in Washington D.C. and discovers there is another town in Arizona that has what looks like a burgeoning childhood cancer cluster, and it just happens to be the town where Ana was born. It is also a town built around an air base.
Shots of jets flying over town punctuated with dramatic footage from the Fallon Air Show precede a tense interview with Admiral Brad Geotsch from the Naval base. Dr. Ridenour points out that there are known jet fuel plumes underground on the base. The Admiral calmly explains that all the leaks at the base are being monitored under strict EPA requirements.
Then another child (age eighteen) in the cluster dies, and for-sale signs crop up all over town. A local realtor tries to stem the hysteria, and as we near the end of the film, the families’ anger reaches a boiling point. Enter Dr. Mark Witten, a researcher from the University of Arizona, who begins a comparison study of the two small towns, Sierra Vista, Arizona and Fallon, trying to find clues in the tree rings, mapping a “toxicological history of the two towns.”
The CDC returns to Fallon a year later with some preliminary findings, announcing they have found elevated levels of both arsenic and tungsten in the population. Brenda and Reto look over their family’s tests and doubt that these naturally-occurring metals have anything to do with why Dusty got sick. Dusty returns to UC Davis for his final chemotherapy treatment, and the family celebrates with a cake and a prayer. In the end, we watch Dusty walk through a cornfield maze, his small body disappearing into the distance.
We are left with the weight of this mystery, and the helplessness of Fallon’s families in the wake of the cumbersome process of scientific investigation. Journalist Frank Mullen vows to finish writing his story, while Brenda and Reto count their blessings, their son has made it through so far. Whatever fell the children of Fallon remains to be discovered. Whether science can provide the link between the environment and disease is beside the point. These children and the town of Fallon, Nevada will never be the same.
Amie Williams, Producer/Director
Amie has been a labor activist/independent filmmaker for the past fifteen years. Past documentary films have garnered international screenings and awards, from the Motion Picture Academy, American Film Institute and the International Documentary Association, among others. Past works include: Uncommon Ground: From Los Angeles to South Africa (1994) about youth and apartheid; Stripped and Teased: Tales from Las Vegas Women,(2001) ; broadcast on PBS and theatrically distributed; One Day Longer: The Story of the Frontier Strike , (2003); commissioned by HEREIU, and Eye of the Storm, The Story of the Lockout for the International Longshoreman and Warehouse Union, ILWU (2005). Recently, Amie was awarded an ITVS/Lincs grant for the film Fallon , NV , about a childhood leukemia cluster in a rural Nevada town and Naval Air Base, which was broadcast on PBS in 2004. Amie has field produced numerous segments for such clients as BBC, Discovery Channel, Sweden Channel-1, Pro-Sieben, (Germany), Canal-Plus (France), the Learning Channel, and HBO/Cinemax. Amie also co-founded the CineVegas International Film Festival in 1998, bringing world cinema for the first time to the Las Vegas Strip. She served as Artistic Director for three years before Trevor Groth of Sundance took over. She is a graduate of Yale University (B.A. 1985) and the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television (M.F.A., 1991). Amie is also a proud member of I.A.T.S.E. local 720 as a camera operator.
Maureen Gosling, Editor
Maureen Gosling has been a documentary filmmaker for more than twenty-nine years and is best known for her twenty-year collaboration with acclaimed independent director, Les Blank. Gosling has also been sought after as an editor, working with such directors as Ashley James, Tom Weidlinger, Shakti Butler, Amie Williams and Pam Rorke Levy. Her work has often focused on themes of people and their cultural values, music as cultural expression and the changing gender roles of men and women. Her films have been seen in countless film festivals around the world, on national public and cable television, on television in Europe, Australia and Asia, and have been distributed widely to educational institutions. Gosling’s most recent work, Blossoms of Fire, a 16mm feature documentary, represents her debut as a Producer/Director. The film is a celebratory tribute to the Isthmus Zapotec people of southern Oaxaca, Mexico. Blossoms of Fire has garnered rave reviews, charming audiences from San Diego to Marseille. The film won the coveted Coral Award for Best Documentary by a Non-Latino Director about Latin America at the Havana International Film Festival.
Stephen Thomas Cavit, Composer
Stephen’s first feature film, The Four Corners of Nowhere, premiered at the 1995 Sundance Film Festival. He’s contributed music to the films Chuck & Buck and The Good Girl for director Miguel Arteta. Other recent work includes Shadow Life with actress/director Julia Sweeny (SNL), Pike Place Market – Soul of a City for PBS and Blue Vinyl for HBO (a selection at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival). Stephen has also contributed to the MTV shows, The Real World and Road Rules.
In addition, Stephen was awarded one of six fellowships to the 2000 Sundance Composers Lab where he studied with composers such as Carter Burwell (Fargo), George S. Clinton (Austin Powers 1&2) and Christopher Young (The Shipping News).