Documentary uncovers health catastrophe

By Drew Hunt

In the past decade, Jeff Spitz, associate professor in the Film and Video Department, has experienced continuing success in his independent film career—so much that he now stands at the forefront of a movement dedicated to righting the wrongs of an environmental disaster.

It all started in 1997, when Spitz was approached by a man who came across an old film his father shot, which featured a group of Native Americans.

According to Spitz, what initially began as a simple idea to return the footage to the people who were in it eventually led him to create his own movie titled “The Return of Navajo Boy.”

Spitz’s film is sort of an update to the original that continues to raise considerable awareness about the ill effects of uranium mining on the tribal lands of Monument Valley, located on the southern border of Utah.

“My advice to [the son] was if the people in [his father’s] film were still alive, and if they’d actually be interested in talking to us,” Spitz said, “that might be the beginning of an interesting documentary.”

From there, Spitz said the film took on a life of its own as he became familiar with the people in the footage, the Cly family. He immediately began to document the struggles they face because of widespread uranium contamination, dating back to mining efforts to build nuclear weapons to end Word War II and fight the Cold War.

Though the film had its original premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, on Jan. 20, 2000, “The Return to Navajo Boy” hasn’t lost any steam in terms of its impact.

Because of awareness created by the film, the Environmental Protection Agency recently dismantled a house in Monument Valley, which was lined with uranium, with plans to dismantle approximately 500 more, Spitz said.

“But that’s just the start of the plan,” he said. “There are more than 1,000 abandoned uranium mines, as well. So this is a problem that penetrates the mine sites, the ground water, the housing structures that have been built and the health of the families [who] live in

this area.”

According to Spitz, there is a higher incidence of cancer on the reservation than in surrounding areas.

“People are beginning to call for epidemiological studies. The very first health studies [are] being undertaken now,” Spitz said. “And they’re using our film at these events where they try to attract these Navajo families to come forward and participate in a health study.”

The film itself also continues to grow. Spitz and his collaborators tacked on a new epilogue to the film in 2008.

Spitz, however, isn’t the only individual currently active in bringing the story of Monument Valley to light. Former L.A. Times reporter Judy Pasternak recently published a book titled “Yellow Dirt: An American Story of a Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed” that also examines the effects uranium had on the region and the actions—or lack thereof—the U.S. government has taken.

At a panel discussion held on Nov. 10 at Film Row Cinema, in the 1104 Center, 1104 S. Wabash Ave., Pasternak described the issues facing Monument Valley as a slow-motion environmental disaster.

“I was pretty blown away,” Pasternak said. “I hadn’t even thought about where uranium … came from, and I certainly didn’t know it was mined in the United States or by Navajos.”

Pasternak, who has done environmental reporting in the past, began to delve deeper into the issue which led to her book.

The film has also benefited from unique marketing techniques on the behalf of Columbia students.

Anne Marie Mitchell, assistant professor in the Marketing Communication Department, tasked her students with creating grassroots marketing campaigns to help promote the film. According to Mitchell, the efforts of her class helped keep the film at the forefront of the activist movement.

“My students had a tremendous amount of success,” Mitchell said. “One student shipped a copy of the film off to The New York Times, so there’s a reporter who’s investigating this now. They raised a lot of awareness for the issue.”

Mitchell said her students were shocked by the story and felt compelled to create more awareness for the issues still surrounding Monument Valley.

“[There was] a feeling of wanting to do something about it,” Mitchell said. “They planted some seeds that I expect are going to grow.”