US: General Electric Expose Garners an Oscar

Boston  - There are three reasons people may remember Debra Chasnoff beyond the immediate glory of Academy Awards night.

Number One: She told a worldwide audience of something like 1 billion to "boycott GE," a platform beyond the fondest imaginings of most activists. Number two: She thanked her "life partner," Kim Klausner, and their son, Noah, becoming the first homosexual to use that term instead of a euphemism like "friend." (Although trivia buffs will remember that a producer of "Torch Song Trilogy" thanked his "lover" on the Tony Awards in 1983.) Number three: She wasn't a full-time filmmaker when she won the Oscar. She was (and for the time being, is) doing communications consulting for nonprofit organizations in the San Francisco area.

So when Chasnoff, a 34-year-old originally from Maryland, says that week changed her life, she really means it. Winning an Academy Award, she says, means "I can stop editing newsletters." Now she can start thinking of herself as a filmmaker. She still has two months of commitments to deliver (newsletters and reports), but then she has to make some decisions. Hire an assistant; maybe get a bigger office than the one little sublet room she has now.

She may even add a second phone line.

The film is called "Deadly Deception: General Electric, Nuclear Weapons and Our Environment," and it too has experienced a Cinderella-like renaissance since being blessed by the Hollywood establishment. A frank piece of propaganda against General Electric, it was commissioned and produced by Infact, a Boston-based group opposed to nuclear weapons -- especially those made by GE. Infact also organized a boycott of Nestle that in 1984 successfully pressured the company to change its marketing of infant formula in poorer countries. The film's distributor, Guy Cables, said requests for "Deadly Deception," which is shown on a double bill with another activist documentary, "Building Bombs," have increased. "The hard part is finding places to show these films," he says. (The two films will be shown at the Biograph in Georgetown Saturday and Sunday at 12:30 p.m.)

Chasnoff's film indicts the multi-billion-dollar corporation on two counts: failing to clean up the site of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state, and knowingly poisoning workers with asbestos and radiation at the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory in Schenectady, N.Y. Scenes of Hanford area residents who have had or know of birth defects and cancer are juxtaposed with the familiar jingle: "GE: We bring good things to life."

A GE spokesman refused to comment on the Hanford facility, which the corporation operated on contract for the government between 1946 and 1965. As for the Knolls operation, he said a GAO report recently found "no significant deficiencies." (Infact finds the GAO study "seriously flawed.")

At any rate, for a piddly $ 65,000, a small (compared with GE) group of activists has gotten major bangs for their bucks, through the use of a little videotape, a lot of person-hours, a few Freedom of Information Act requests and a certain amount of luck. Which just goes to show, Chasnoff says, that "one person can make a difference," especially in concert with others of like mind.

Of course, they cannot exactly claim that GE has been brought to its knees. In fact, spokesman Ford Slater says the boycott has had "no significant effect whatsoever," and the company's revenues increased from $ 32 billion to $ 60 billion a year since Infact started its campaign in 1985. Infact says the boycott has cost GE $ 30 million.

Chasnoff made the film in nine months, from September of 1990 to last June. She won the job with a brief proposal that suggested using excerpts from GE's television commercials, and then sat down to fashion a 29-minute script from boxes of research provided by Infact.

The small budget meant she couldn't pre-interview the people in Washington state or Schenectady because there was only enough money for one trip. "You're not supposed to do that," she says. That meant she and a crew met their subjects for the first time when they turned on the cameras, to talk publicly about life-threatening illnesses or the deaths of loved ones.

Somehow it all came together.

Before "Deadly Deception," Chasnoff had made only one film and assisted on another. That one film was "Choosing Children," which Chasnoff and her partner, Kim Klausner, made in 1982 in response to growing interest from lesbians in having children. "Kim said, 'Let's make a movie,' " Chasnoff says. "So we did."

At that point Chasnoff was a veteran of both political and journalistic activism. At Wellesley College she was an anti-nuke organizer, and after college worked at three jobs in Boston: an organizer for 9 to 5 (which represents lower-echelon working women), an editor at Dollars and Sense magazine and the unpaid host of a public affairs program on radio, riding her bicycle feverishly between them. She also worked briefly for a corporation whose policies she gradually realized she disagreed with, and quit the job because of that.

After Klausner and Chasnoff decided to make a film about lesbians having babies, they raised $ 40,000 and went to Margaret Lazarus of Cambridge Documentary Films Inc. "They didn't know what they were doing before they started," says Lazarus. "They physically did not know how to edit. So we taught them how to do that. They both had experience writing, and did some excellent fund-raising. And they were moved by passion, which is most important."

Debra Chasnoff seems to be one of those people undeterred by ordinary doubts, although she says that making "Deadly Deception" was a "struggle" and she was "scared a lot of the time." She has a tidy look, and an air of poised competence.

She went through Paint Branch High School in three years "because I was bored," and even so spent much of her junior year directing a student production of "Bye Bye Birdie." Her parents, Joel Chasnoff and Sue Prosen, were basic progressive Montgomery County Democrats, but she cannot recall precisely why she became "such a progressive radical activist."

"I came of age during the civil rights and anti-war era," she says. "And that was always in our back yard. My best friend in eighth grade had a brother who was arrested in an anti-war demonstration; I was very taken by that. ... I remember the '68 riots [in Washington] and loading up a station wagon with canned food that we took to a church for some reason. I guess I would have been about 11... .

"There was a feeling that it was important to have a social conscience. That's what makes you get up in the morning."

Her father was elected to the Maryland legislature when she was 16, and her parents separated (and later divorced) when she was 17. And no, she says, neither was very happy when she came out as a lesbian, began a relationship with Klausner and subsequently became a parent.

Klausner had the baby, but they are equal parents, she says tersely. Noah is now 3 1/2. While she was making the film, of course, Klausner shouldered more of the child care burden. Klausner works for the Northern California Community Loan Fund, which lends money to nonprofit organizations to develop low-income housing.

Her parents have become more accepting, she says. In fact, she was amazed to learn that her mother, an education professor at Johns Hopkins, has a copy of "Choosing Children."

"As each of them has gotten to a point where they are happy in their own lives, they could see I was happy too," she says. Prosen would say only that she thought her daughter's award speech was handled with "great dignity."

Her father rose on the Maryland House floor to tell his fellow legislators of his daughter's achievement, and invited them all to a showing of "Deadly Deception."

Yes, she was nervous before the award ceremony, and yes, she stewed for weeks about what to wear, finally settling on a copper-colored sequin jacket and black pants. (She won't say how much it cost other than "more money than I've ever spent on anything.")

She knew that if she won she would have 45 seconds to talk before the flashing sign summoned the figurative hook, so she practiced what she wanted to say. She knew she wanted to say "Boycott GE" and share the award with Infact, which "helped us tell the real story about the company that falsely claims it 'brings good things to life.' " And she knew she wanted to mention Klausner, and say straightforwardly that she was her "life partner," and that they had a son, "who reminds me on a daily basis why it is so important to keep working for peace and justice." Quite a lot for 45 seconds.

After the ceremony she went to the Governor's Ball, and through a fluke was able to get extra tickets for her party of six. She felt at first like something of an alien, seeing as how she rarely goes to the movies and hardly recognized any of the stars she was supposed to be impressed by.

But she remembered enough to note that Jodie Foster congratulated her, and so did Oliver Stone. Snapshots posted on the wall at Infact show Klausner and Chasnoff dancing, together, at the ball. It was quite a night.

AMP Section Name:War & Disaster Profiteering
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