ustin, Texas, videographer Laura Dunn doesn't like to go to the movies. Most Hollywood-style storytelling, she says, has a way of dulling the imagination. So when this twenty-six-year-old gets behind her digital video camera, she's not looking to make box-office hits.
"I see a lot of environmental devastation around me, a lot of people being hurt, and a lot of people saying, 'What can I do about it?'" Dunn says. "I'm making movies to inform and empower people."
Dunn just wrapped up her fourth film, Become the Sky, a 57-minute poetic treatise on the inner workings of the Texas energy industry. (It's due out from Two Birds Film in October.) If it's anything like her last independent film, Green, which earned her a student Academy Award in 2001, industry executives should brace themselves for a little criticism. Green documents communities living (and dying) in the shadows of 150 petrochemical plants operating along the hundred-mile stretch of the Mississippi River known as Cancer Alley. Dunn, who was born in New Orleans, opens the film with a thirteen-year-old who describes what it's like to live with cancer. She also interviews a chemical plant worker who reveals how his employer dumped heavy metals in the river, obfuscatory government officials, and residents of a community whose homes sit on top of a Superfund site. All taken, it's a damning look at life in an area where industry has run amok.
During the making of Green, which she shot over two years with a grant from the Texas Filmmaker Production Fund, Dunn slept on strangers' couches, ate plenty of gumbo, and even hired an ex-Vietnam helicopter pilot and a cinematographer specializing in aerial photography to fly her -- illegally -- over the chemical plants. (Luckily, there was no one waiting to haul them to the county jail after they landed.) Maneuvers like this one go a long way to explaining her success: She simply doesn't stop for roadblocks.
"I spent a year on the ground getting to know people who were dying," Dunn says, her eyes flashing with anger. "So when I got up in that helicopter, I didn't care about the consequences. So many people say don't do this or don't do that because it's dangerous. But I'm more concerned with losing my spiritual life than losing my physical life."
The next stop for Dunn is the Middle East, where she'll begin work on a documentary about water resources in Israel, Jordan, and the occupied Palestinian Territories. "I knew early on that I'd have to fend for myself," she says. "Now the only thing that brings me hope is going out and meeting new people and engaging the world. I love chasing a story."