Canada's Asbestos Mines: A Dying Industry?

By Condon, Kimberly | Women & Environments International Magazine, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Canada's Asbestos Mines: A Dying Industry?


Condon, Kimberly, Women & Environments International Magazine


Interview with filmmaker KathLeen Mullen

Kathleen Mullen is a Torontobased filmmaker and director of Breathtaking, a film about the death of her father from asbestos-related cancer. Breathtaking explores the connections between her father's life, and eventual illness, and the modern-day asbestos industry. Mullen is currently the Artistic Director of the Planet in Focus Environmental Film Festival. WEI Magazine asked about her experiences working on Breathtaking, and her thoughts on the asbestos extraction industry.

Q: You were motivated to create your film, Breathtaking, as a result of your family's personal experience with asbestos-related illness. At what point did you decide to make a film about your father's death from mesothelioma, and how did you decide on the format of an investigative documentary?

A: The idea of the film started with wanting to make a film about my father, his life and his struggle with mesothelioma. I had a huge amount of respect for him as a man, father and worker. He had this amazing work ethic and I couldn't stop thinking about how the disease of mesothelioma (a cancer that is caused by exposure to asbestos) killed him and it was a direct result of his work.

I am also a filmmaker and a person who looks at the big picture. I was interested in making a documentary that was both personal about my family and about the current issues of asbestos mining and use in Canada and internationally. I knew that this disease not only affected my father but so many men and women around the world. So for me the film became a persona] investigation into the current-day use of asbestos.

Q: Why do you think that the investigative documentary is such a powerful medium to tell a story like your father's?

A: My father was exposed to asbestos 40 years ago. The latency period is a key element to this disease, and so I was thinking that asbestos was over, banned and not used anymore. I discovered that this is not true. There are countries in the world that still mine, export and use asbestos. One of the many exporters is Canada, along with Russia and other countries. The investigative documentary gave me a way in to exploring the story of both my father's life and his perspectives and a platform to look into what is happening in Québec where asbestos is mined today and exported to developing nations. So I went to the mines in Thetford, Québec and then to India to trace the export of asbestos where it is used for low-income housing. I spoke with my family members and used many family photographs and my own photographs and super8 films that I had made of my family over the years. In my research, I met with many other families who have been affected by asbestos, experts, politicians, activists and workers all over Canada and in India.

Q:What was the most surprising thing you discovered while researching and filming Breathtaking"?

A: That is easy to answer. Whenever I brought up my film and what it was about, whether it was at a wedding, or with a fellow filmmaker or just a random person, I always heard the same response. People often said, "Oh I had an uncle, father, sister, mother, grandfather, grandmother, daughter who died of that disease or we think they died of asbestos but the doctors called it lung cancer at the time." It was shocking. It is really the six degrees of separation. In addition, I found out that asbestos can affect you regardless of what culture, class or gender you are or come from.

Q:Most people think of asbestos exposure as something that occurs primarily in the workplace and affects mostly men. What is the impact of the modern asbestos extraction industry on women specifically? How are women affected, directly or indirectly?

A: Women are affected through the work place in their jobs as well. But as traditionally and still today to a large extent many of the jobs where the highest rates of exposure are seen are more "male" dominated fields (engineering, mining, construction, boiler workers, etc). …

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