The latest addition to the fear-mongering genre of documentary films is The Devil We Know, which sets its sights on DuPont (now known as DowDuPont after a merger with Dow Chemical) and its Teflon products. Specifically, the film sets its sights on the C-8 chemical used to make a revolutionary non-stick cooking product (as well as several other household items), and how it has caused health concerns with those that live near the DuPont factories manufacturing the chemical.
The fear-mongering tactic is used in a lot of documentaries meant to serve as an expose on topics that cause an effect on us all. The Devil We Know opens with that very tactic by acknowledging the universal use of Teflon products in virtually every household. In this opening lies one of the fundamental issues with the documentary: it scares us but doesn’t make a case for why we should be scared. Instead, it focuses on how one town (and a couple others nearby) are affected by the C-8 chemical in the water they drink from. Stumbled upon by a local farmer who discovers his animals are dying of unknown causes, the film follows a town’s struggle to mount a case against DuPont.
The Devil We Know is a fairly redundant film, even though the narrative does keep moving forward. The same beat keeps happening again and again, but it winds up feeling more exciting because of editing; there are even moments early on when it feels like the overlapping of images and audio is cementing DuPont as the devil incarnate. Regardless of any concessions made to make things snappier, the film still puts a lot of weight at the beginning on the widespread use of Teflon, and then wags the finger at DuPont for making a chemical so harmful to the environment. Rightfully so, of course, but eventually it just feels like the filmmakers want audiences to boycott.
The reality is that The Devil We Know is a well-made movie, but its procedural elements are at odds with its attempts to frighten audiences from using Teflon products. The main issue is that the C-8 chemical doesn’t seem to cause any problems with the people using Teflon products, despite being another unfortunate example of a product harmful to the environment, but it’s so small-scale that there’s no surprise in knowing that a version of the chemical is still being made today. The issue isn’t belittled, but the film behaves on a scale that doesn’t befit the issue’s impact. It’s not really the devil we know, but more the devil a town knows.
The Hot Docs Film Festival takes place from Thursday, April 26 to May 6. Visit the official website for more info.