Cinematographer Neal Broffman gave us an exclusive interview behind the eye-opening docuseries Wasteland, which is currently streaming on Paramount+. The four episode series examines the terrible impact waste is having on America’s waterways and the challenges people must overcome to preserve their health.
Broffman trusted Canon’s EOS C500 Mark II and EOS C300 Mark II to bring to light the infrastructure issues many communities around the country are facing due to collapsing sewer systems and the inaction from government leadership to solve the crisis.
Synopsis: The world’s wealthiest nation hides a problem you’ve never thought about, but can no longer ignore. Too much waste, and an inadequate way to clean it up. Failing septic tanks and collapsing sewer lines are shooting raw waste into people’s homes. Untreated sewage is poisoning rivers and polluting coastlines. Wasteland examines how we got here, and whether overproduction of waste, and a crumbling infrastructure can keep up, before the problem blows up in our faces.
PH: How long have you been a cinematographer?
Neal Broffman: I started working full time with video cameras back in the early 90s but I’ve spent my entire life with cameras. My father, Morton Broffman, was a photographer and I grew up going on assignments with him and watching him work in the darkroom as he developed photographs that are today considered iconic images of the civil rights movement. He taught me not only how to see photography, composition, and storytelling, but also to be meticulous and caring about the work.
PH: What was the driving force(s) that led you to this career?
Neal Broffman: I have always worked from the conviction that filmmaking, documentary filmmaking in particular, can be a force for good – a force for change. I worked for CNN throughout the 1990s based in London, Rome, and Moscow. In that job as a “videographer” and an editor I covered many of the major international stories that happened during those years. The Gulf War, Somalia, Bosnia, the first free elections in South Africa, the list is extensive. In that time, I cultivated what has become a deeply held sense of ethical responsibility to the work as well as a creative aesthetic that informs my work.
PH: What inspired the docuseries Wasteland?
Neal Broffman: I decided to leave broadcast news in 2001 when the digital tools that we all use today to create films really started to take off. I was able to focus my work on the stories that had meaning for me. To that end I spent many years traveling and documenting global public health stories around the world. The current Wasteland series is kind of a logical continuation of that work with one big exception – the stories are all here in the US. The big draw to move forward on these particular stories was that they combined powerful elements of social justice, racial justice, and environmental justice. The possibility to film and edit the series with the team Elisa Gambino (the director and my partner) and I assembled was exciting. I literally had to do it.
PH: Given the nature of the state of our environment, what were some key points you felt were critical to highlight in this series?
Neal Broffman: We learn more and more every day about the precarious state of our environment and the increasingly dangerous effects our actions have on climate.
In the Florida episode we see what happens when waters rise along the Gulf Coast of Florida and cause septic tanks along the waterways to leak – blue green algae blooms that increase in severity each year and wreak havoc on the natural world as well as well as the tourism industry.
In the Alabama episode of Wasteland the focus is on the rural poor in Lowndes County and the lack of access to functioning sewage disposal for the residents . That episode looks at the amazing efforts being undertaken to change the paradigm in Lowndes County by Sherry Bradley and Perman Hardy through their Blackbelt Unincorporated Wastewater Program. The film shines a light on the environmental injustice being perpetrated on the poorest residents of Lowndes County.
In Iowa we look at the hog industry and it’s damaging effects on the Iowa aquifer. Iowa, a state with 3 million people, produces hog waste that would be the equivalent of 100 million people, annually. That waste is land applied as fertilizer and then makes its way into the waterways and drinking wells.
In Mount Vernon, New York, the episode looks at the crumbling, decayed, sewage infrastructure that lies deep beneath the city streets. The pipe failures are so frequent that the Department of Public Works is out every day trying to fix the daily explosions of sewage that flood residential and business properties.
The series shows viewers aspects of modern life that are often ignored because, frankly, it can be difficult to talk about human waste.
PH: Why did you trust (and use) Canon’s EOS C500 Mark II and EOS C300 Mark II to get the job done for this series?
Neal Broffman: I have been a Canon EOS Cinema user since the first C300 came out. I had the C300, the C300 MK2, and now the C500 MK2. When we make a film the camera is an extension of ourselves and if this is the case we ought to have a good relationship with our camera. Everything about these cameras works for me and how I work.
I have worked in dozens of countries around the world with my Canon EOS Cinema cameras. These cameras are rugged enough to handle challenging work environments and they make filming fun. The full sensor lets me work my L Series lenses as intended, and the wide dynamic range is so valuable in many of the places I work. In my documentary work I work largely with only available lighting in a more observational style. In low light the camera excels. The EOS Cinema cameras are designed for that kind of a workflow.
With the Wasteland series and its vastly different filming environments from episode to episode, the C500mk2 combined with the C300mk2 were the perfect match.
In addition to Wasteland, I filmed Help Us Find Sunil Tripathi (2015), Welcome to Pine Lake (2020), and countless global health equity stories with my Canon cameras.
PH: How did you use storytelling to showcase the severity of waste and the impact it has on so many communities?
Neal Broffman: It’s crucial to tell a story, not just to show a problem. In Wasteland, we focused on different characters in each one of the four locations. This character driven approach pulls the viewer into these complex stories. After watching the series we not only have a much deeper understanding of the problems that these communities face but we also understand the that neglect of communities cannot go by unnoticed.
PH: What is one thing you hope viewers draw from this docuseries?
Neal Broffman: There are many levels of interconnectedness in the series but I think the main idea I’d like people to take away with them is that our country fails entire communities through willful neglect. Until that changes the shitshow will continue. And that is unjust.
PH: Looking ahead, can you share any other projects you’re working on?
Neal Broffman: Elisa and I will be heading to Malawi, Liberia, Mexico, and Navajo Nation to work on a series of public health stories and in the fall we will be filming in The Philippines for six weeks for a documentary short we are producing. My C500mk2 will be tucked safely in the overhead compartment for every leg of the journey and will film every frame of what’s to come.