Back in 2013, Remington Smith was looking for a project to film while in grad school in Iowa. He recalled having read an article in LEO Weekly about a proposed coal ash pond in West Louisville, and as he dug more into the topic, he came across the neighborhood of Rubbertown. He read about the heavy industrial manufacturing plants in the area as well as the nearby toxic landfill site.
And that led him to the residents of Rubbertown, who were suffering daily with fear of leaks, spills, explosions, possibly even higher rates of cancer and respiratory illnesses. Smith, a budding filmmaker, knew he had found the subject of his first documentary, which will premiere Friday, Sept. 30, at Baxter Avenue Theatres.
Filmed over the span of more than three years, “Rubbertown” follows residents Monika Burkhead, who is attempting to relocate her house to another county, and Charles Pope, who lives close to the neighborhood and joined the Rubbertown Emergency ACTtion (REACT) group to help fight pollution in the area.
Since Smith was still in college and had a very limited budget, he took on most of the roles of filming “Rubbertown” himself, including interviewing, directing and editing. But he believes this helped him build trust with the residents.
“Most of the people I met were willing to chat,” he tells Insider. “The way I shot it helped with that because it was just me and the camera, no extra crew. So that allowed me to have a low profile that wouldn’t intimidate folks, I think.”
A Louisville native, Smith says he was shocked he had never before heard of the toxicity in Rubbertown. He hopes it helps shed light on the issue for the entire city, because in the end, it really does affect everyone.
“Some of these places around Rubbertown are only 15 miles away from Mall St. Matthews, and the whole city is downwind of it when it comes to the air pollution factor. So that’s not just a West End problem,” he says. “When Louisville regularly ranks as one of the worst places for air quality, that’s a city problem.”
Smith says some people might ask why residents just don’t move out of the neighborhood, but it’s just not that simple or feasible.
“Most of the people who live around these chemical plants and such, they were either born in that community or moved there not knowing what’s there,” he says, mentioning that the Louisville bike trail goes right by the Lee’s Lane Landfill, but most people don’t even know it because it’s not well marked. “And when you do find out what’s in your neighborhood, either you’re tied to the community in a way that makes you want to fight it, or you don’t have the money to move out.”
He can relate to the former sentiment, because it’s been posed to him as well. “Someone asked me the same question: ‘So you made a documentary about the environmental hazards in Louisville, and now you’re moving back?’ Home is home, so you try and make it better instead of just moving away from the problem.”
Smith currently is teaching at the University of Louisville as a visiting assistant professor in film and film production. He’s glad to be back in town and is working on several projects of his own at the moment. Over the next year, “Rubbertown” will be shown at several film festivals, including Indie Grits in Columbia, S.C.
He says he hopes his documentary leads to a wider discussion on the topic and that city officials start taking resident complaints more seriously.
“I hope people in other parts of the city see how this is connected to their health as well,” says Smith. “In Louisville, you have a greater chance of a chemical leak or a plant explosion harming you than a terrorist attack, so hopefully we can also adjust our fear barometer for the things that have proven a consistent risk to our lives.”
“Rubbertown” will screen Friday, Sept. 30, at 8 p.m. at Baxter Avenue Theatres. Smith will be in attendance for a Q&A after the film. Tickets are $5. It’ll also screen at Louisville’s International Festival of Film on Saturday, Oct. 15.