The film Unbreathable: The Fight for Healthy Air premiered on June 18. This thirty-minute documentary, in collaboration with the Environmental Film Festival in Nation’s Capital, highlights the ongoing struggle for clean air in the United States over the past fifty years since the Clean Air Act was passed into law. The film was executively produced by the School of Communication’s Center for Environmental Filmmaking in partnership with the American Lung Association, American University School of Public Affairs’ Center for Environmental Policy and the Hanley Foundation.
Maggie Burnette Stogner, award winning filmmaker and executive director of the Center for Environmental Filmmaking, directed the film. It was also produced by SOC alumna Elizabeth Herzfeldt-Kamprath. Another SOC alumni involved in the production of the film was Shannon Lawrence. Lawrence was the Researcher and Archivist for Unbreathable. Lawrence graduated from American University in 2016 with a Masters of Fine Arts in Film and Electronic Media. She is currently working in Los Angeles, CA as a Post Production Assistant. As a researcher for the film, Lawrence conducted background and subject research that was used to identify characters and storylines. In her role as archivist, she sourced the stock photos and videos that are present in the film including the historical imagery. Lawrence is passionate about creating work that has the potential to have real-world impact and was pleased that the film addressed environmental racism. She feels that Unbreathable has the opportunity to educate communities about how they can defend their right to clean air. For Lawrence, the most meaningful part of working on the film was learning about the communities who have been affected by the issues highlighted in the documentary, and was inspired by their activism and hopes that audiences of the film will be similarly inspired.
Cinematographer, Matt Cipollone graduated from American University in 2018 with a Masters in Fine Arts in Film & Media Arts. He has been working as a freelance filmmaker in the Greater Washington, D.C. area. As one of a few cinematographers for Unbreathable, Cipollone was responsible for filming various aspects of the film. Cipollone worked collaboratively with producer, Herzfeldt-Kamprath in planning and executing the filming. Cipollone and Herzfeldt-Kamparth were in the same MFA cohort at SOC and had a positive repour from their time in graduate school.
He had the opportunity to work with Stogner when he was a student at SOC on another film, In the Executioner’s Shadow. Cipollone was eager to collaborate on another project as the film was about an issue that he is passionate about, air pollution and quality, especially in his own community. He is originally from the Baltimore area, so he feels a close connection to the project, especially the work that Shashawnda Campbell is doing with Free Your Voice, Baltimore. Cipollone was excited to participate in a project concerning social issues affecting people today. For him, the most meaningful part of working on Unbreathable was knowing that the film was being produced to impact policy, not just a historical analysis of the issue. He was also deeply impacted by the community story in Louisiana as he realized that it has a deep impact on that community’s population for generations to come. Cipollone was appreciative to work collaboratively with filmmakers that he admires and said that it reinforces how filmmaking is supposed to be, “a small collaborative environment where you feel good about doing hard work.”
Following the film’s online debut, there was a live panel discussion featuring the filmmaker and policy experts. The panel was broadcast to a national audience of more than 35o. The six-member panel consisted of Mustafa Santiago Ali, Vice President of Environmental Justice, Climate, and Community Revitalization for the National Wildlife Federation; Bill Reilly, Former Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; Shashawnda Campbell, Free Your Voice, Baltimore; Beth Gardiner, author of “Choked”; Burnette Stogner; and moderated by Paul Billings, National Senior Vice President, Public Policy for the American Lung Association.
The discussion focused on the film’s place in history, highlighting the 50th anniversary of the Clean Air Act, and noting the important time in history that we’re now in. The greatest takeaway from it all was that much work has been done towards the fight for healthy air, but that much more work remains.