Loosely based on actual events, Farid Bentoumi’s Red Soil follows the efforts of Nour Hamadi (Zita Hanrot) as she attempts to reveal dangerous working conditions and environmental pollution at a chemical refinery in the south of France. It’s a familiar, even boilerplate story about the dangers of becoming a whistleblower — think Dark Waters meets Erin Brockovich — bolstered by fine performances and Bentoumi’s attention to the complicated web of influences that often keep otherwise good people from doing the right thing. Nour is a former ER nurse, dismissed from the hospital after an accidental oversight left a patient dead. Her father Slimane (the great Sami Bouajila) gets her a job at the local refinery, where he has worked for 30 years, climbing the ranks and raising a family in the surrounding small-town community. Bentoumi and co-writer Samuel Doux deftly observe the workings of this closely knitted enclave, where people’s sense of self is intertwined with, even inseparable from, their jobs, and the ways in which these kinds of large-scale industrial plants that employ hundreds of people envelope both micro and macro political agendas. Slimane, nicknamed Slim by friends and family, believes in unions and campaigns for the local Green Party candidate, occasionally leading to internecine fighting with co-workers who want to vote conservative (or fascist, as Slimane makes clear). Both groups want the plant to prosper, but can’t agree on how to achieve it.
Into this heated environment comes Nour, who, in the midst of doing standard check-ups and physicals on workers, discovers that many of them have similar medical issues, including worrisome breathing problems. Further digging reveals that some of these men have decades-long gaps in their medical history, and that most worked at a remote dumping ground in the ’90s before being transferred to the refinery. Eventually, Nour is given the whole sordid history of corporate malfeasance by an intrepid local journalist named Emma (Céline Sallette), and they travel to the site, referred to as “the lake,” to find a devastated patch of forest full of dangerous waste. Of course, the refinery spent years dumping pollutants into “the lake” and has made every effort to paper over its dubious past actions. Complicating matters is that the refinery represents the totality of the local economy, and has since been issued legitimacy by the government, allowing it to now legally bury its waste in deep ravines. The company line is clear — without the ability to dump waste somewhere, the refinery will close, taking jobs and people’s livelihoods with it. These are complicated issues, and the film shines while navigating them, investing environmental justice with these personal, ground-level perspectives. Less successful is the dutiful fulfillment of genre-mandated dramatic beats, as Red Soil eventually rushes towards its conclusion and temporarily transforms into an uninteresting eco-thriller. Co-produced by the Dardenne brothers (and featuring Dardenne regular Olivier Gourmet in a small supporting role), Red Soil would have benefited from adopting some of the brother’s visceral style and penchant for more elusive, elliptical storytelling. Ultimately, the film is one of those modest successes that is likely preaching to the choir, and it proves that the lives of ordinary people navigating our extraordinary present are endlessly more fascinating than didacticism, no matter how well-intentioned.
Published as part of Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2021 — Dispatch 2.