Documentary filmmaker Alex Bledsoe. Photo: Adrian Octavius Walker
Documentary filmmaker Alex Bledsoe. Photo: Adrian Octavius Walker

While many are fixated on the global pandemic, filmmaker, activist and Oakland resident Alex Bledsoe is raising awareness for a different public-health crisis happening right now in the East Bay. Bledsoe is in the early stages of production for her documentary OAKLEAD, which investigates the lead poisoning crisis in Oakland.

Bledsoe was recently awarded the inaugural Berkeley Film Foundation Jonathan Logan Elevate Award for OAKLEAD, a feature-length documentary that investigates the history of and movement around the lead poisoning crisis in Oakland.

While most associate lead poisoning with Flint, Michigan, Reuters published an investigative report in 2016 that revealed that 3,000 communities in the United States have higher rates of lead poisoning than Flint, including the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland. The film follows families who are organizing to protect their children from environmental racism in their schools and homes. Ultimately, the documentary elucidates the relationships between race, socioeconomic status and access to adequate healthcare and housing.

“The OAKLEAD story is urgent,” said Bledsoe. “Because of the lack of awareness about lead poisoning, most people don’t know it’s a threat until it’s too late.”

OAKLEAD demonstrates the connection between environmental and racial justice movements,” she continued. “Lead poisoning disproportionately impacts people of color, which exacerbates other racial inequities, such as the school-to-prison pipeline. The COVID-19 pandemic has further reinforced the basic necessity of safe housing.”

Looking for lead at a residential property: 3,000 communities in the U.S. have higher rates of lead poisoning than Flint, Michigan, including the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland. Credit: Vincent Cortez

While the cause of lead poisoning in Oakland isn’t clear due to research and data gaps, common contamination sources include plumbing materials, lead-based paint and lead-contaminated dust, water, and soil. OAKLEAD will investigate this lack of transparency in publicly available information.

The film is currently in early production, but challenges like coronavirus and the economic crisis in the East Bay have created obstacles.

“The most challenging part thus far has been attempting to stay in Oakland, as an independent artist and activist working on a racial justice issue without institutional support, amidst pervasive gentrification and the worst housing crisis in the country,” Bledsoe said.

Yet, the director and her team press on. They feel a sense of urgency because of the catastrophic health consequences of lead poisoning. Bledsoe cites statistics that show as many as 500,000 children under 6 in the U.S. are currently lead poisoned, a condition that can result in permanent damage to the brain and kidney.

“Because of the lack of awareness about lead poisoning, most people don’t know it’s a threat until it’s too late.”

Alex Bledsoe

“It can lead to learning disabilities, lower IQ, behavioral issues and incarceration, coma, seizures and even death,” said Bledsoe.

Bledsoe believes awareness and prevention can help remedy the problem and hopes her film can offer a solution, however.

“Lead poisoning is 100% preventable,” she says. “This film has the potential to cause people across the United States to rightfully question the safety of their own water and environment, and protect current and future generations of children.”

Berkeley Film Foundation also believes in the social potential of OAKLEAD.

“Alex’s passion for her project came through right away,” said Isabella Miller, BFF’s program director. “She quit her job at a large tech company to focus on this film fulltime. Even though she is still in the early stages of production … we were able to easily understand her full vision for the film and were very excited where it was headed.

“We have all learned recently that not addressing public-health concerns can lead to disaster and hits vulnerable populations the hardest,” Miller continued. “We see Alex’s film as one small way to address the crisis and find a fast solution.”

And Bledsoe is the first recipient of the Berkeley Film Foundation’s new Jonathan Logan Elevate Award, which supports a first-time filmmaker making work that advances social justice, providing support of $25,000 for one year. (See the other 2020 BFF grant winners.)

Jonathan Logan, founder and CEO of the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, said OAKLEAD was a perfect fit for their values. “Supporting emerging documentary filmmakers is important to our foundation, especially women and filmmakers of color whose stories need to be told. This film tells an urgent social justice story happening right in our own backyard here in Oakland.”

Bledsoe says the award money will go toward supporting her team as they try to help communities most affected by environmental racism.

“Especially in the context of economic disinvestment in Bay Area communities of color, this award helps to sustain creators while we fight for awareness of lead poisoning as a pressing racial justice issue,” she said.

This story was updated after publication with a clarification about the various potential sources of lead poisoning in Oakland.