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Take Note: Judith Helfand On Her New Documentary, "Cooked," And Making Change Through Her Work

Documentary filmmaker Judith Helfand in the WPSU studios.
Min Xian

In 1995, one of the deadliest heat waves in the United States killed 739 people in Chicago. Why was the death count so high? And why were the deaths concentrated in poor, mostly African American neighborhoods? In her new documentary "Cooked: Survival by Zip Code," filmmaker Judith Helfand says it wasn't the heat that killed these people, but generations of institutional racism. 

We talked with the Peabody Award-winning director about "Cooked," which had its TV premiere on Independent Lens on PBS earlier this month, and about her past documentaries, which include "Blue Vinyl" and "A Healthy Baby Girl."  


Emily Reddy: Welcome to Take Note on WPSU. I'm Emily Reddy. In 1995, one of the deadliest heat waves in the United States killed 739 people in Chicago. Why was the death count so high? And why were the deaths concentrated in poor, mostly African American neighborhoods? In her new documentary "Cooked: Survival by Zip Code," filmmaker Judith Helfand says it wasn't the heat that killed these people, but generations of institutional racism. We talked with the Peabody Award-winning director about "Cooked," which had its TV premiere on Independent Lens on PBS earlier this month, and about her past documentaries, which include "Blue Vinyl" and "A Healthy Baby Girl." Judith Helfand, thanks for talking with us. 
Judith Helfand: Thanks for having me here. 
Reddy: So this Chicago heat wave and these deaths happened 25 years ago...
Helfand: 25 years ago, this July 
Reddy: This July. So how did you find this story? And how did you decide this will be the focus of this documentary?
Helfand: You know, I wish I could say I remembered it at the time. And it was a horrific thing. And I knew, deep down that this was a story that had a profound impact on on the American landscape at the time and on United States and on city policy and the way people were really thinking about the climate crisis. But that's not the case. So I don't even remember it. You know, I was in an air conditioned editing room working on my own film. None of that kind of imprinted itself in my brain or in my heart or in my thinking, until I read this book called "Heat Wave: Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago" by Eric Klinenberg, who's an extraordinary sociologist who's based at NYU. He at the time, Eric, a lot of different filmmakers were wanting to tell this story, and were trying to option the rights to the book. What he really liked about my work was the real personal approach. Now, I did not intend to make this a first person story. I was sort of so amazed that one extreme weather event could reveal the underlying and underside of a city. And that through that extreme weather event, you could see, as he would call it, the social fault lines of class and race. That it would take this sort of horrible, horrible disaster in order to see the underlying disaster that's there every single day.
Reddy: I think it might help listeners if they heard a little bit, a part of the trailer. Where we'll hear from a number of the voices who you talk with in the documentary. So why don't I play that?
Helfand: Please. 
Voice 1: I walked into the room and I saw my grandmother lying across the bed face up. I looked over at the window and it was nailed shut.
Voice 2: The sexiness for the news media was it was about the heat. But the real story is why were people in these neighborhoods dying? People weren't dying on the north side. People weren't dying in the Gold Coast. People were dying on the south and west sides. 
Voice 3: The minute you see there're refrigerated trucks, that means there's so many dead bodies that the coroner doesn't have room for them anymore. That's enough. 
Helfand: Do you think it's really about the heat?
Voice 4: It's not really about the heat. There is no need for as much poverty in our community as there is.
Voice 5: It's a story about these deeper social fault lines. That make some members of a city vulnerable and keep others protected and blissfully ignorant about what's happening to people who live quite close to them. 
Helfand: Do you think they're addressing that? 
Voice 5: Do I think the city is addressing the extreme poverty in communities of color in Chicago. Is that what you're asking me? [laugh] Don't be ridiculous.
Helfand: So what's the best way to prepare for disaster? I guess it depends on where you live.
Reddy: So the the takeaway here seems to be survival of disasters, or perhaps survival at all, has to do with where you live. Like your title: "Cooked: Survival by Zip Code."
Helfand: Yes. And you know that that question. That's the very last question at the very end of the movie. And the last line is, well, I guess it depends on where you live, and the kind of world we want to live in. And I, um, I get emotional when I think about that because it really is up to us. I mean we really can decide that life and death inequity is not going to be how our country and how our world and our communities and our states and our cities operate. That considering the time in which we live in a country that we live in, that we don't have to have lifespan gap that's between 15 or 30 years from one side of town to the other. That that's unacceptable, and that everything that's led up to that is something that we're committed to addressing.
Reddy: And so by the end of this heat wave, 739 people die in Chicago. They end up using nine refrigerated trucks to store the bodies. And I was struck by what you said: They finally got the air conditioning they needed while awaiting autopsy. That idea comes up multiple times if these resources had just been there on the front end when disaster hit, they might have survived. 
Helfand: Right. And it wouldn't just be an individual with an air conditioner in their apartment, and that would save them. That would save them, for sure. But it also has to do with having streets and neighborhoods and communities that are resourced in such a way so that you feel you feel welcome and excited to go outside. That you feel safe to go outside. That you know that, you know, you could walk a couple of blocks and there will be a library that's open and air conditioned. And it's a place you know that you're not just going to a cooling center that has nothing but a bunch of chairs in it. You know that you're going to the community center that you go to all the time. You're going to the library that you're going to all the time.You're going to a place that celebrates and nurtures the kind of social cohesion and social life that determines who lives and dies and thrives every single day, regardless of the weather. But then especially when there's an extreme weather event.
Reddy: I was struck by the woman who, um, who talked about her grandmother who, who, you know, the windows were nailed shut. You know, she was too afraid to even it for this thing that could help her survive.
Helfand: But I, you know, I think the thing that we forget is that then, "Wow, well, then it's dangerous." What is really important, the take away from all of this, is that this is not about, you know, individuals making choices. You know, there's Dr. Whitman, who's the epidemiologist at the centerpiece of this story, who used... who took the deaths during the heatwave, and he plotted them on a map. And he took their addresses and he was able to sort of see that the majority of the heat deaths were taking place in neighborhoods that had extreme poverty and people were living under the poverty level. And it was not a coincidence. You know, he was not surprised. Of course, this is what's going to happen. I mean, this is what happens when you have extreme inequity. And that extreme inequity is linked to extreme racism. And it's on top of this, that visually, we place the the map, the map that kind of underscores so much of this, which is the redlining map of the late 1930s. And if you were to look at those and you were able to understand, you know, where are we suggesting, and making sure that people of color live here, and white people live over here. And loans are being made here. And loans are not being made here. You know, if you were to extrapolate from that, and look now, many, many, many years later, you might start to see trends and patterns that help you understand, you know, life expectancy rates now, and all of the things that determine who lives and dies currently. You could all trace it back. 
Reddy: So, in other words, this kind of poverty doesn't just happen. It's created?
Helfand: Over a long period of time, yes. And it's not because they're not pulling themselves up by the bootstraps. It's so much deeper than that.
Reddy: And you actually have a military official in the documentary who says that, you know, they they should pull themselves up by the bootstraps. When you suggest that maybe the money should come before the disaster and he says, "That's not how it happens. It comes after." 
Helfand: Right.
Reddy: "They should pull themselves up by their bootstraps." 
Helfand: Well, I'm sort of showing him this map and sort of saying, "Well, if if, if, if the if the point of all of this is to be fully fully resourced and prepared, so that in the event of a disaster, you could go back in and sort of helped the community build it back the way it was, but you actually know way in advance which communities are going to get hurt the most. Who's hurt right now? Who, who has the worst... who has the hardest chance of kind of living every single day, let alone living through and thriving during a natural disaster. If we know all of that. And we sort of have the Doppler of extreme poverty. And it's like right there and we see it. Why aren't we racing to address that right now? And we actually have numbers of we have the numbers of of dead that we could count on every single year. We don't even have to wait, why not move in." And he said, "Well, it's just not how it works. And where I come from, 'Hey, pull yourself up by the bootstraps.'" But you know, I've been taking this movie around the country and that is one of the quotes that, you know, that makes people very, it's just, it makes people very, very, very upset and it really sort of pushes their buttons because it's it's not really looking at the longterm impact of any kind of structural system that really defines how we live today.
Reddy: You said that there's a number of deaths that happened because of this racist foundation. And Steve Whitman, who you mentioned, the chief epidemiologist for Chicago during the heat wave, he puts that number at 3,200 per year. That's without a natural disaster like this heat wave. So what makes up all that?  
Helfand: So this 3,200 number that was in 2005. And it was linked to the number of people who he understands, is dying, sort of like extra deaths, because of treatable diseases. It's it's, it's the disasters that we don't consider to be disasters. It's people that are dying of deaths that he knows are treatable on one side of town versus on the other side of town. On one side of town, women are getting early detection for breast cancer. And on the other side of town, you know, women are being diagnosed when it's completely metastatic and they're dying of something they don't need to be dying of.
Reddy: And and we do see a little bit of intervention with people signing women up to get...
Helfand: Mammograms. Right 
Helfand: Those were the community health workers at the Sinai Urban Health Institute, that Dr. Whitman left his job as being chief epidemiologist to go and lead the Sinai Urban Health Institute because in his mind, you know, like, that's the intervention. He says what we need is a poverty emergency plan, or we need a plan to address social evils. We don't really need a heat emergency plan. And I try to juxtapose these two worlds so that we could actually see for ourselves, you know, like, wow, look at what we do, to be prepared for a tornado that might not come and if it does, might kill one person but will cause a lot of damage, for sure. And look at these extraordinary small human interventions that are taking place that if brought to a certain scale would actually help change the local economy, would make neighborhoods safer, would make streets thrive, would make people much, much healthier, and would make everybody much more prepared for everyday life, let alone for a natural disaster because of the climate crisis.
Reddy: And you call those "slow motion disasters."
Helfand: That's what Eric Klinenberg calls them. I'm quoting him. Yes, slow motion public health disasters.
Reddy: You're listening to Take Note on WPSU. I'm Emily Reddy. We're talking with Peabody Award winner Judith Helfand, who directed the documentary "Cooked: Survival by Zip Code" about the 1995 heat wave in Chicago, which killed 739 people. You put yourself in a lot of your documentaries. You said you weren't gonna put yourself in this one, but you ended up doing that. Why did you decide to do that?
Helfand: I was connecting dots that my characters weren't necessarily connecting. So, you know, it wasn't like Dr. Whitman, you know, said, "Okay, and now I'm going to go into the world of disaster preparedness. And I'm going to bring my my heat death poverty map and I'm going to go and I'm going to say, 'Hey, [Brigadier General John W.] Heltzel, you gotta look at this. Let me show you. The ground zero of disaster started here. Oh, and then let me show you this redlining map. And if you put them all together, we should be focusing our resources here.'" Nah, he would never take those leaps. 
Reddy: So you had to do it? 
Helfand: He wouldn't really even necessarily agree with me. Yeah, so I had to do it and I was doing it. And so it made a lot of sense. But there's also... I really want white people and white communities like the kind that I come from. You know, I come from a suburban community in Nassau County, Long Island and it you know, it wasn't until I was working on this film, and trying to connect the dots between, you know, a disaster that took place, a heat disaster in 1995, and the social determinants of health and disease and then starting to really try to understand the link to redlining and then realize, "Oh, my goodness, you know what? I'm the beneficiary of redlining." I grew up in one of the most redlined communities and counties in this country. And the realtors steered my parents to Merrick not to Freeport, and they had barely any money, but they were able to get a little mortgage for a $15,000 starter ranch that they lived in for 44 years and sold for like $450,000 and when they needed to, they were able to remortgage the house so that I could go to NYU and go to undergraduate film school. And then that house became their retirement fund. They didn't really have a whole lot else to lean on and then I didn't have to support my parents because they made that great investment. And that investment never would have accrued in the way it did if they lived in in any other community around us, that was not all white and middle class and upwardly mobile, because it was designed to be like that. So, you know, all of a sudden you realize, I am the beneficiary of very racist policies that my middle class parents were able to actually benefit from, whether they understood that that was what was happening or not. Those policies informed my family's trajectory for generations.
Reddy: And one of your earliest documentaries was "A Healthy Baby Girl." It looks at the effects on your life of a drug doctors used to prescribe to prevent miscarriage, diethylstilbestrol, or DES. Your mother was given this drug and that led to you having cancer, right?
Helfand: Yeah, I had cancer when I was 25. I'll be 56. So...
Reddy: More than half a life ago. 
Helfand: Yeah. So I'm super lucky that they caught the cancer when they did. A lot of women who were diagnosed with this were not as lucky as I was. But it was a huge, huge tragedy, right? I mean, it was, it was the disaster that my mother was terrified would implode inside my body. And she was terrified for years. And it was a life changing moment. And I was a young documentary maker who wanted to make films about social justice. But I could never have imagined that I would ever put myself in my own film. Tell a story about my family. Like, what kind of struggles could my middle class Jewish family be really having that would be universal enough to be useful to anybody else? 
Reddy: Because this meant you had to have a radical hysterectomy. 
Helfand: Right. I had to have a radical hysterectomy and what it made me realize, you know, I had never really thought about toxic chemical exposure. And I never really thought about the drug that my mother had taken. I mean, I knew that it had caused problems in lots of people, but I, I didn't really pull it out and really understand, oh my goodness, like, we we have been harmed by very, very cynical decision making by a pharmaceutical industry that actually knew that this is carcinogenic and ineffective.You know, and were not push to have to take this off the market or at least contract indicate it until, you know, young woman like myself started to have this cancer. So, all of a sudden, I had access to, you know, a very horrific story that most people only really come to meet and understand, you know, when they get hurt when they become that product liability. So, but what I really came to understand was, wow, you know, like I now I get what Rachel Carson is talking about, I get what the longterm impact of chemical exposure and cynical corporate decision making is. I get that because when I look in the mirror, you know, I'm the last Like, I can't... if and when I want to have that baby, I can't. So when we talk about extinction, like, this is what extinction looks like. Now it's slow. I'm just one person. But this is what it looks like. So and this is what it looks like when those kinds of decisions get inside your relationship with your mother. And now you and your mother are so sad or depressed or guilty or verklempt that, you know, it's like you look at each other, and you think, how are we really going to ever get through this. So I chose to use storytelling as a way to remind my mother that, "I know you feel guilty and I know I'm angry and depressed, but I'm not going to let that get in the way of our relationship. And if it means I have to keep this camera here to remind both of us that this is bigger than us, then I'm going to do that." And that begot, so to speak, a certain style of telling stories that are very transparent, that show the means of production, that show my research, that show me connecting the dots, that let people into my life, and where I use dark humor and jokes to get through the worst of it.
Reddy: And it seems like your next documentary "Love & Stuff" is about your relationship with your mother and your and you daughter, who you adopted. 
Helfand: Yeah. It's kind of.... it picks up in a lot of ways where "A Healthy Baby Girl" leaves off. I am helping my mother die, which is an extraordinary opportunity to spend the last couple of months or a year of someone's life and decide, you know what, let's be comfortable. Let's try... let's let let's let the only pain really be how sad it is that we're going to miss each other. But let's as much as we possibly can use this time to love each other and be present for each other and to live a good death. And so I got to do that. Then I made the mistake of taking home too much stuff, because I couldn't bear to part with it. And then I too much stuff in my house. That's the "stuff" part. And then I got the phone call that I had been waiting for it, which was that if I wanted to, I could adopt a girl, a healthy baby girl. But I'd have to decide in three hours. So I had three hours to get to "yes." I had been trying to adapt this baby before my mother died. I had about two and a half years while she had metastatic cancer, but she was alive and I thought, "Okay, she needs to see me with a baby in my arms so she could die in peace and not feel guilty." And that was my goal. But, um, Theo arrived seven months to the day that my mom passed away. So the joke was that my mom sent her. Which I think she did. And now Theo's five and a half. And the movie turns into a story about parenting from both sides of the cameras. And I dig back deep into so much of that material that I shot during "A Healthy Baby Girl" and then subsequently during "Blue Vinyl" and another movie called "Ek Velt: At the End of the World." My parents were these reluctant stars, as was our house, for many years. And along the way, they really taught me how to be a good filmmaker and a good daughter, I hope. And then when I needed to learn how to be a good mother, my mom wasn't around, but I still had all that archival footage. So the movie is this interesting amalgam of parenting and moviemaking and archival footage and too much stuff and a lot of love.
Reddy: I think anyone who does this kind of documentary work must hope that it will lead to some kind of change. Have you seen change or what change do you hope will happen?
Helfand: Well, I mean, "Love & Stuff" started as an op-doc and any of your viewers, listeners, they could watch it. All you have to do is go to the New York Times op-doc series and Google "Love & Stuff" and you'd get to see it. And it became like this go to piece of media that was sent to people either when they had a family member who was diagnosed with a deadly disease, and they knew that they had a set period of time. And so someone would send it and say, "You know, you should think about going through your parents' stuff with your parents. And, you know, they're still here, and you could do a life review with them. And it could be fun and doesn't have to be horrible. And they'll be so grateful. And do it because Judith didn't do it. But she made this movie instead. And you should do it." And so I've gotten so many emails from people that say, "My mother died. I called up my cousin to tell her, and a minute later, she sent me your movie. And I, here I was planning for the funeral, but I actually watched it, and it made me feel better. Thank you.  I think I'm going to be able to go through the stuff." Or "I took your advice, and I went home and I said, 'Dad, let's start going through your stuff.' And we the best time." So, you know, on a one to one level, I know that that movie has actually made a very big difference in people's lives at a very pivotal moment. With "Blue Vinyl," it was used as a fulcrum. Right? As a very... as a great piece of storytelling, leverage. And leverage that will included, "Oh, it was at the Sundance Film Festival. Oh, it was on HBO." But community organizers were working at very many, at many different levels. You know, at at the level of trying to push big box stores to not carry, you know, vinyl toys. And the big box stores said, "Okay, we're not gonna do it anymore." And that's because activists said no more. You cannot use our children as chemical testing grounds. We don't want this stuff in their bodies, especially at these very, very fundamental periods of formation and growth. So I have seen that happen, and I know that our movie was part of that very very fundamental consumer movement that worked both at the institutional transformation level: big institutions, hospitals, college campuses, big box stores, but also at the individual level. So, you know, I've seen it happen. And what I'm hoping happens with "Cooked" is a two fold thing. We're really trying to use our time on public television, and our opportunities to come to communities like here and Penn State, and to go to very strategic cities that have experienced extreme weather events that have revealed the extreme disparity that is there at all times every single day, no matter the weather. And we're really trying to actually say, "Hey, we can use our disaster preparedness infrastructure in a radically different way. Perhaps, you know, if you reframe how you see slow motion, public health disaster, and you see it as a disaster, that's worthy of addressing now and that the people who are hurting the worst every single day have value and and and they merit support and that support could be investing disaster dollars into communities you know that that would really benefit from this new Green New Deal that would benefit from green jobs that would benefit from addressing the climate crisis and addressing the wealth gap and the health disparity gap at the very very, very same time." That's where we're trying to kind of like, use this movie to help people see that it that we actually have choices, and we could use what we understand about how disaster functions to to address the slow motion public health crises that determine who lives and dies every single day. So I... what I'm finding are there are all these extraordinary people that are inside these agencies that are starting to reframe and redefine disaster and reframe and redefined preparedness. And they need the sort of outside push that a story like this has to help them have longform discussions with their colleagues, to help brainstorm, to help desilo how these agencies work. And at the same time for them to know that they can, like reexamine and relook at how they work with these grassroots organizations who are in their own right, doing their own disaster preparedness. So that's how we're trying to do it. I think... I think it's gonna happen.
Reddy: Judith Helfand, thanks for talking with us. 
Helfand: Thank you so much. 
Reddy: Peabody Award winner Judith Helfand directed the documentary "Cooked: Survival by Zip Code" about the 1995 heat wave which killed 739 people in Chicago. Helfand says it wasn't the heat that killed these people, but generations of institutional racism. "Cooked" had its TV premiere on Independent Lens on PBS earlier this month. You can stream it for free until March 4. Helfand's past documentaries include "Blue Vinyl and "A Healthy Baby Girl." To hear this and other episodes of Take Note, go to I'm Emily Reddy, WPSU.

Emily Reddy is the news director at WPSU-FM, the NPR-affiliate public radio station for central and northern Pennsylvania.
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