Local filmmaker and USC film school graduate inspired by the Sundance Film Festival
To view Emily Billow’s “Diesel Death Zone” documentary, visit youtube.com/watch?v=iaJmGq675Jc&feature=youtu.be
Park City High School graduate Emily Billow just earned her bachelor’s degree in media arts and practice from the University of Southern California’s famed School of Cinematic Arts.
Billow says her interest in filmmaking was inspired by her Park City upbringing that included attending school screenings of Sundance Film Festival movies.
“Seeing those films every year was honestly enough to pique my interest in filmmaking, and getting involved in the filmmaking classes at the high school under (teacher) Kyle Fish was a big step for me,” she said. “That’s what really got me interested in USC. I knew I wanted to go to the biggest film school in the country.”
Her passion for the environment and climate change was sparked by Jeff Orlowski’s 2017 documentary, “Chasing Coral,” which examines the degradation of the world’s coral reefs.
“I think that is one of the Best Sundance Films I have ever seen,” Billow said. “And I have always wanted to address those issues in my work.”
Almost as proof of how much she cares about the environment, Billow’s senior thesis is a 20-minute documentary titled “Diesel Death Zone,” which examines how communities are impacted by pollution from The Los Angeles-Long Beach Port complex, oil refineries and busy freeways.
“I’m interested in the environment and climate change,” Billow said. “Those are really big passions in my work.”
Billow began working on the film in March, when she was in coronavirus lockdown.
“I moved away from USC campus and down to San Pedro, which was a safer environment for me, and at the doorstep of the Port of L.A.,” she said. “When I moved there, I didn’t know that it was the biggest port in the United States, and that the majority of our imports and exports come through there. There is something like an average of 30 huge cargo ships coming into port each day.”
As Billow learned more about the port, she also began finding other things in the area.
“Driving around you can’t help but see the massive cranes, and there are also a lot of oil refineries along the highway there,” she said. “I wanted to get to know what was happening, and I started my own research.”
Through her research, Billow came across the term “Diesel Death Zone,” which was coined by a local doctor.
“‘Diesel Death Zone’ refers to the communities right around the Los Angeles/Long Beach port complex and the oil refineries and the freeways,” she said. “These communities deal with huge air pollution from those entities, and many people develop health issues such as asthma, lung disease and cancer.”
As Billow dug further, she came across a study conducted by the California Air Resources Board that concluded 3,700 premature deaths per year are directly attributed to port activities statewide.
The study also cited that approximately 120 deaths per year in the San Pedro area were associated with diesel particulate matter emissions from activities at the Port of Los Angeles and Long Beach.
“It was so stunning to see those statistics,” she said.
Billow also found that those impacted communities are mostly populated by minorities and low-income families.
“So, they are already dealing with a lot of stressors, and air pollution is just one more thing,” she said.
Billow decided her senior thesis would be about the environmental injustices on these communities.
“I felt it was important that I bring a voice to these people and, in doing so, educate people about what they are going through,” she said.
Billow produced, directed, shot and edited the film by herself, and she did it in three months.
“If the pandemic wouldn’t have been a factor, I would have had a team of three or more people,” she said. “But because of COVID safety restrictions, I was a one-person team, although I did have a little help from my roommate.”
Billow began shooting scenes and scouting locations in August, and began principal photography and interviews in late August and early September.
Some of those interviews were conducted with Jesse Marquez, founder of the Coalition for a Safe Environment, and John Miller, a board-certified emergency physician.
“I did a mix of Zoom and in-person interviews outside, and I shot all the way up until a couple of weeks before it was due,” Billow said. “Organization was the key, but I had started editing early on, and kept shooting because there were so many things I wanted to include.”
Editor’s note: Billow interned for The Park Record as a high school student in 2016 and 2017.
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