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Napa-based documentary highlights horrors of Roundup

“Have film will travel.” That’s Brian Lilla’s modus operandi or MO. Thanks to Edie Otis — a long time real estate broker and Sonoma County resident — Lilla will travel from his home in Napa to the Rialto Theater in Sebastopol for a once-only benefit screening of his documentary, Children of the Vine, on Oct. 11, 2022. Tickets are $10 (Note: local citizens are coughing up $500 for Lilla to speak). In July, Otis saw the documentary at a fundraiser for Preserve Rural Sonoma County and was so impressed she felt it had to be seen again and again by as wide and as diverse an audience as possible.

Otis told me, “In 1998, I moved from Marin to Sonoma because I thought it was a down-to-earth community with organic farming. I soon learned that it was a toxic environment. One day, I noticed a neighbor spraying his vines. I called the Sonoma County Ag Department to report what I had seen and asked to remain anonymous, though the neighbor was notified of my call and there was backlash. I don’t want people to be afraid to call Ag. We need to speak up when neighbors are spraying and the drift lands on our property and on our children.”

Toxic to bees, Malathion is banned in the EU, but not in the US, where the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) urges people to stay indoors with windows closed when Malathion is sprayed and to wash skin and eyes after contact.

Edie Otis isn’t the only kind of viewer that movie maker Lilla wants to reach. After a screening of Children of the Vine in Healdsburg, a grape grower approached him and said it was time for him to stop using Roundup in his vineyard. Lilla wants to hear more of those stories. His film will likely prompt them. While Children of the Vine has a clear environmental perspective it doesn’t beat viewers over the head with a message.

At times it can be subtle, especially at the beginning when the soundtrack includes the chirping of birds, followed by a thunder and lightning storm. “I hope audiences take notice,” Lilla says. His own children, he says, motivated him to make his film. It seems likely that viewers who care about their sons and daughters and about the future for the human race will respond favorably.

“The title Children Of The Vine is a spin off from the ‘70s horror film Children Of The Corn,” Lilla explains. He adds “My wife says that Children Of The Vine sounds like a horror film. I always tell her it is."

Lilla’s credits for Children of the Vine include director, producer, publicist, writer and researcher. Without a substantial budget for advertising and publicity, he relies on word of mouth from folks like Otis to inform citizens and persuade them to see his doc.

“My wife and I moved from Oakland to Napa nine years ago,” Lilla tells me. “We liked the community and our neighbors, but when we learned how much Roundup is used our perspective shifted. The Napa River is so polluted that kids can’t play in it.”

It took Lilla a year or so to comb the internet, read articles and learn about glyphosate, the key active ingredient in Roundup, a weed killer and likely carcinogen that has been sprayed for decades on vineyards, lawns, gardens, and agricultural crops from Sonoma and Napa to counties all over the US and countries all over the world.

It’s both a local and a global story that won’t go away anytime soon since Roundup is still in use and people who apply it are still getting cancer. In counties hard hit by the pandemic and by hunger, governments have recently relaxed bans on glyphosate and so staples like wheat are back on the market with toxic chemicals.

In 2019, a jury awarded $80 million in damages to Sonoma County resident Edwin Hardeman, who used Roundup for years to eradicate poison oak, weeds and brush on his property. The jury found that Roundup contributed to his Non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL)—a cancer that attacks the immune system in humans—and also that Monsanto, the company that makes and sells the product, provided no adequate warning of its potential harm.

According to Mitchel Cohen, the editor of the popular book, “The Fight Against Monsanto: The Politics of Pesticides,” Bayer (the German-based multinational corporation which now owns Monsanto) paid $10 billion to settle cancer lawsuits in 2020. Cohen says that Roundup is used in 160 countries around the world and that Bayer’s revenue is about $50 billion a year.

No wonder Cohen, Lilla, Edie Otis, Padi Selwyn and organizations like Preserve Rural Sonoma County want a permanent ban on Roundup and glyphosate. “Our paradise is poisoned with herbicides and pesticides,” Selwyn told me. Children of the Vine might have been subtitled “Trouble in Paradise.”

According to Lilla, Napa County has had the highest rates of cancer for children in California, and, according to the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children's Health, Sonoma County, has had the third highest rates of cancer for children in the state. Marin County pediatrician, Michelle Perro, and UC Berkeley Professor, Vincanne Adams, argue in their book, What’s Making Our Children Sick?, that North Bay kids have impaired guts and damaged immune systems because they’re “chronically exposed to poisons in their environment, and specifically in and from their food.”

To conduct research for Children of the Vine, Lilla went on the road, in part because he couldn’t find anyone in Napa willing to talk to him on the record and in front of a camera. Close to home, lips were sealed. The further away from Napa, sources were more willing to talk.

Lilla might have stayed close in the North Bay, poked around more than he did and interviewed folks like Phil Coturri who grows grapes organically at Winery Sixteen 600, and who has managed organic vineyards in Sonoma and Napa for forty years. “I don’t know why anyone would want to spray chemicals and live and work next to a toxic dump,” Coturri tells me.

Lilla also might have interviewed Bob Cannard who grows organic vegetables that are sold at Green String Farm. Cannard also cultivates hundreds of acres of organic grapes for Cline Family Cellars. Cannard recently launched a campaign to ban toxic pesticides and herbicides in California. “All and any use of Roundup is excessive,” Cannard tells me.

Still, many of the individuals that Lilla interviewed have a lot to say on the record and in front of his camera. They include: Carey Gillian, the author of Whitewash, The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer and the Corruption of Science, whom he interviewed in Overland Park, Kansas; Zach Bush, an outspoken environmentally focused doctor whom he interviewed in San Diego; Brett Wishner, a lawyer in Los Angeles; plus Teri McCall, the widow of a Cambria, California farmer and Vietnam veteran, Jack McCall.

After Jack died, Teri filed a wrongful death suit against Monsanto, claiming that the company downplayed the risk of using Roundup. Jack applied the herbicide on his 20-acre farm for nearly 30 years. One of Teri’s lawyers, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., observed “Glyphosate is the product of both modern chemistry and a profoundly corrupt corporate culture. It is sad for our country and our people that such a powerful economic leader can only be trusted to put private greed before public health.”

Not surprisingly, neither Monsanto nor Bayer have responded to Lilla’s requests for interviews. Curiously, but perhaps not, Bayer makes medicines that combat cancer. Call it a vicious cycle. Lilla isn’t resting at home. Rather, he’s taking his movie and traveling to Berkeley, to Pittsburg, PA, Prescott, Arizona and wherever citizens care about their own well being and the health of the planet.

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