THE PLUME is a 70 min. feature documentary. After 35 years, journalist Franc Contreras returns to his hometown to investigate the clandestine dumping and cover-up of deadly chemicals in his community’s underground source of water. What he uncovers in this predominantly Mexican-American neighborhood is both devastating and inspirational.

The film will be shot in the visually stunning Sonoran Desert of Southern Arizona.

A classic 1969 VW Beetle goes past iconographic monuments and plazas in Mexico City. It's driver is the narrator of the film, journalist Franc Contreras. He tells how coming to the Mexican capital to work as a news correspondent has been a dream come true for him. He learned the language of his grandparents in the streets and back neighborhoods here. But he explains, he also came here to get far away from the pain of a great loss he suffered when he was a child in Tucson, Arizona.

From an old apartment in Mexico City, the film’s protagonist FRANC reads yellowed 1985 newspaper clippings from Tucson's newspaper, The Arizona Daily Star. A collage of headlines appears on screen: “Southsiders drank TCE for Years” and “Survey finds cancer rates above norm in TCE area,” and “Three Southside youths hit by rare cancer;” and “Son’s death leaves father still wondering;” and “Mom of cancer victim is angry.”

Franc writes in his diary and we hear him narrating how as a boy growing up in Tucson, Arizona, he had no idea how widespread the cancer devastation was there in his own community.

Speaking with another journalist on the phone, Franc told that he should return home and dig for the causes of many cancer deaths in the neighborhood where he grew up -- including the death of his own mother at the age of 34. Having recently survived heart surgery, Franc reluctantly agrees to tackle this challenge. Though it’s been nearly 40 years since he left Tucson, Franc puts suitcases into the top rack of his two-tone 1960s VW Beetle sporting white wall tires and Mexican license plates and begins his journey north.

We watch Franc depart Mexico City’s and cross vast stretches of desert highway and hear his thoughts about watching his mother wither away during her last year of life. Family photos show how young and beautiful she once was. Franc’s VW crosses the border into Arizona and explains that the toxic area where he was raised in now known as “The Plume.”

Franc goes straight to the Southside (his old stomping ground) and drives past Mexican American murals and Mexican restaurants. Through phone conversations, formal interviews, and intimate conversations and with archival footage, we meet several characters including activists and cancer survivors who unveil details about the history of the contamination and provide a current local and national perspective on the multi-faceted issue.

We first meet JANE KAY, a former Daily Star investigative reporter: she was the first to break the story about the contamination in 1985. Among many other details, Jane tells Franc that government investigators learned the TCE came from the old Hughes Aircraft Company, which operated a factory for manufacturing military missiles located in “The Plume” the early 1950s to 1977.

We see Franc’s Mexican VW Bug driving through Tucson to the home of the introspective MELINDA CHAMNESS BERNAL, a former environmental activist and school teacher. Melinda shares that the nature of the problem was first discovered by local Mexican American residents who would talk at birthday parties, baptisms, weddings and funerals about widespread cancer deaths on the Southside. She shares a faithful moment in 1985 when the top Pima County Health official met with community members at the Valencia Public Library and tried convincing them that their Mexican food diets and lack of exercise caused so many people to die at early ages.

RICK GONZALES is a retired lawyer who helped launch a lawsuit in 1987 for 1,600 mostly Mexican American residents from the Southside. He tells Franc that in 1971, the government reported (with minor exceptions) there were no significant connections between TCE-contaminated water and higher rates of illness. That same year, Hughes and government entities decided to settle out of court with payments totaling $85 million dollars to the 1,600 affected residents.

Next Franc drives out to the ranch home of ROSE AUGUSTINE, who is now in her 80s. Still energetic, Rose tells the story of how she worked with the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice (SNEEJ) and ultimately became a national leader in the U.S. Environmental Justice movement. She suspects a massive cover-up has been going on for decades to keep the dimensions of the problem away from the larger public. She also believes there are deep political divisions among Southside community leaders who falsely claim to be fighting for environmental justice.

After weeks of investigating, Franc ultimately confronts local officials seeking answers about cover-up allegations. Politicians and local water company officials resoundingly deny it. Then a new series of chemicals, Polyfluoroalkyl Substances(PFAS), are found in Tucson’s groundwater. The Trump administration blocks the public release of a government study showing that PFAS are the result of contamination near and around domestic military installations, where communities of color live.

Franc meets two Southside residents PATTIE DAGGETT and SUPER DAVE GUTIERREZ, who are both cancer survivors. They are mostly upbeat and optimistic, and yet brutally honest about who is to blame for the toxic contamination of their community’s water supply. Franc begins spending time with the latest leader for environmental justice on the Southside, LINDA ROBLES, who is trying to draw attention to the newly discovered PFAS toxins in the desert aquifer.

Act Two ends as Franc retreats to the desert -- just as he did when he was a teenager. He builds a small fire under the bright desert stars and spends the night contemplating the level of denial and lack of community unity in the neighborhoods where he was raised. It is the darkest yet most enlightening moment in the film. Late into the night, looking up at the stars, Franc realizes that his family was not alone in their suffering and that his sense of isolation following his mother’s death made him decide to leave Tucson.

The next day Franc is transformed. After recognizing he and his community are personally devastated by the water contamination problem, Franc crosses the line from reporter to activist and organizes a massive memorial service for families on the Southside who have lost loved ones to cancer, lupus and other related diseases caused by chemical contamination. Those who attend bring photos of their deceased family members. Political factions from the same community stand amongst each other for the first time.

The gathering provides a temporary sense of healing and community unity. But as he drives his old Volkswagen back to Mexico, Franc wonders whether it will last.

  • Franc Contreras
    Mexico in the Middle
  • Franc Contreras
  • Erika Cohn
    Creative Advisor
    The Judge, In Football We Trust
  • Mark Braun
    Director of Photography
    The Academy, Angry Young Man, This Bitter Earth
  • Brandon/Kane Productions
    Executive Producer
    Small People Big Trees, Siberian Wanderer, Right of Passage
  • Joel Goodman
    Composer and Music Director
    Being Elmo, Claude Lanzmann, An Honest Liar
  • Project Type:
    Documentary, Feature
  • Genres:
    Community Portrait, Environment, Civil Rights, WorkInProgress
  • Runtime:
    1 hour 15 minutes
  • Completion Date:
    April 1, 2020
  • Production Budget:
    685,000 USD
  • Country of Origin:
    United States
  • Country of Filming:
    United States
  • Language:
  • Shooting Format:
  • Aspect Ratio:
  • Film Color:
  • First-time Filmmaker:
  • Student Project:
Director Biography - Franc Contreras

Franc Contreras is the Writer, Director and Co-producer of THE PLUME. Since 1996, he has traveled Latin America reporting in addition to writing and directing hundreds of short and medium format documentary scripts for global news organizations including Al Jazeera English, BBC World Service Television and the China Global Television Network. Franc was born and raised in the area of Tucson’s Superfund site where the water is contaminated. His own mother died in that neighborhood of cancer. Franc’s video and radio productions, short documentaries and story narrations have been seen and heard by tens of millions of people around the world.

Add Director Biography
Director Statement

THE PLUME is a community profile showcasing three Mexican American women who have the strength to take on powerful politicians and the military weapons industry to bring environmental justice to their desert community. I hope their courage and determination gives a voice to activists around the globe, particularly women working in disenfranchised communities.

To show the contemporary importance of this story, we will include archival footage of missiles and fighter jets from the Cold War years of the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and viewers will see images of the current arms race with footage of the Trump administration and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un and leaders in Iran. Moving cameras and drone shots will illustrate the beauty of the vast, mountain-framed spaces of the Sonoran Desert, where Tucson is located. These images will be captured in digital format on two separate cameras using the same color science. Cinematic lighting, slow motion and time lapse footage will be used to punctuate the importance of water in this desert community, and our sound will be a stereo mix with the appropriate music to bring these stories to life.