Breaking Boundaries: An Undergrad's Journey Using Filmmaking to Communicate Science and Environmental Injustice

April 02, 2024

Cover for the Fenceline documentary, featuring accolades and the names of the creators.

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Ria Salway, Biological Sciences senior

Biological Sciences Undergraduate Ria Salway co-created the award-winning documentary Fenceline: Louisiana's Cancer Alley, shedding light on critical science, environmental, and community issues. The film delves into the persistent challenges of "Cancer Alley", an 84-mile petrochemical corridor along the Mississippi River. Recognized with the "Best Non-Fiction Award" at the A Show For A Change film festival and nominated for "Best Documentary" at the Catskill International Film Festival, Fenceline aims to ignite vital discussions on environmental justice, public health, and community resilience.

Join us as we learn about Salway's insights and experiences behind the production of Fenceline.


What inspired you to create Fenceline, and how does it connect with your personal or academic journey?

Media and film were my first interactions with environmental problems, and as I learned about these pretty large-scale issues facing Louisiana, I thought film was a powerful way to address them. I had previously worked on a documentary about microplastics with the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana (CRCL) and was really starting to appreciate filmmaking as a means of scientific communication. 

Working on Fenceline has motivated me to seek other avenues of scientific communication as I continue to study science. There is a real need for public outreach in the scientific world, and there are significant disconnects in the general public’s perceptions of scientific research.


Can you share some details about the process of developing the documentary from conceptualization to completion?

Developing a documentary is incredibly intensive, with so many moving parts at any given time. My co-director and I initially outlined the idea for this project in our first year. We knew we wanted to create an information-based documentary centered on accumulating the views of experts and residents in "Cancer Alley" as an educational tool for public outreach. Still, we were unsure about getting all the resources we needed. We were fortunate to find fantastic mentors who helped us acquire funding. 

We began setting up interviews with any public figures we could find in news articles and such who had been doing work in the region and were willing to talk to us. Eventually, our network expanded — a few individuals we spoke with referred us to other people working in the region, but also through a lot of cold emails and phone calls. Although we researched the issues of "Cancer Alley" before any of our filming took place, it was pretty straightforward once we started talking to people that there was an important story to be told that was not necessarily something someone could just read about.

As we continued filming our interviews and getting a B-roll of the region, the scope of our project evolved. The editing process was intensive due to the sheer volume of footage we had collected but I definitely felt the story coming together as we re-watched our interviews. 

Something that I am incredibly proud of is that this project was entirely student-created regarding all our filming and the post-production work on the film. We found some incredible student musicians to create a completely original track for us and other key team members including a sound editor and graphic designer. Nearly three years after we first started, the project is ready to be screened!


How do you think your science background influenced your filmmaking approach?

I think I view filmmaking (specifically documentary filmmaking) as a means of communication more than anything. Filmmaking priorities vary from person to person. It can be considered an art form, and people from a more traditional film background might be more concerned about the artistic quality of a film. I have always wanted to be a scientist, and the entire reason I got into filmmaking was because I wanted to communicate these important environmental issues to audiences that may not interact with science as much as I have had the opportunity to. So, when we were creating this documentary, I think a lot of that mind frame bled through. 

This project was about informing the audience of the critical environmental justice issues facing residents in "Cancer Alley", convincing them that the science behind cancer rates in the area is sound, and compelling them to address the barriers that have kept people in "Cancer Alley" from having their voices heard for so long. We actually did not give a lot of thought to the more artistic elements in the film, such as background music, until post-production, which is definitely a deviation from someone approaching a film as art more than science. That is not to say the artistic elements are not important, because they are when it comes to trying to make your audience feel connected to your message. However, I think that it is pretty clear watching the film, that our primary concern was the message.


Were there any challenges or memorable moments during the production that significantly impacted the direction or message of the film?

We faced several challenges and setbacks during production. The first one was the gap between the start of our production and our funding. We started filming before we knew we had the funding to get most of the resources we needed, including film equipment. We were thankfully able to use the College of Art & Design’s CxC Studio resources for the initial part of our project after talking over our plans with the studio coordinator. 

Additionally, the entire project was delayed for several months due to the devastating effects of Hurricane Ida. Once we actually began filming, the entire film shifted direction at several points as we continued to learn more about the area from our inspirational interviewees. Our biggest shift was the scope of our topic. We had initially planned to focus our efforts on one specific effort that activists in one area of "Cancer Alley" were rallying for but we significantly broadened our topic to address the variety of problems the region as a whole is facing. We realized the narrow scope of the project was not as informative as was needed for a region that most people in the country do not know about. 


How do you see Fenceline contributing to conversations or movements within your field or the broader community?

I hope that Fenceline helps create more awareness of "Cancer Alley". I also hope it encourages students specifically to take stock of the issues happening in their communities. "Cancer Alley" extends into Baton Rouge, but there is a lack of public awareness surrounding the region. Students are the next generation of leaders in this country, and I do not want us to make the same mistakes that led to the formation of "Cancer Alley". That means we need to learn from history and understand our community.


How has this project influenced your perspective or future aspirations in both the scientific and creative fields?

This project has definitely steered me on a path toward public outreach and scientific communication. I love doing research but want to connect the scientific work I do with the public. Filming this documentary taught me how easy it is to misconstrue data to people who do not have an intensive science background and about the need for communicating science at a level that is accessible to everyone.


What advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers or students interested in exploring documentary filmmaking?

I think half of the battle is just committing to a project and developing an effective plan. It can be stressful starting out as a filmmaker because you are always worried that you lack experience. I remember that as the project moved forward and we encountered challenges, I kept thinking I was not the best person to create this film because I did not have enough experience as a filmmaker, and I was not even a film major. Mindset is a big hurdle for first-time filmmakers to cross. You are going to make mistakes, and there are going to be things you wish you could do differently, but the lessons you learn at each stage will improve your skills and prepare you for future work. 

It is also important to understand what your limits are, whether it is time, budget, or other resources. For documentarians especially, remember why you are making the film because understanding its purpose will help you push through the challenges. It is important not to get so caught up on your end product that you forget to listen to the people you are interviewing. The narrative may change as you learn more about your subject matter and being open to shifting your project as new developments occur is critical. Ultimately, viewing your project as one step towards increasing the understanding of the topic you are pursuing can help you focus your efforts.