Allergic to the World

The Sensitives and the illness of environment

The Sensitives

Chemical and electromagnetic sensitivities to the body, specifically on the spectral extremes, are argued to often inordinate degrees. Various international health organizations have not been able to square wide-ranging symptoms with certain causes. While studies on chemical sensitivity run into the nth, AMC series Better Call Saul and filmmaker Werner Herzog's 2016 documentary, Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World acutely traversed the sociopsychological framing around non-AI-related ills of technology.

These include possibilities that people could have adverse reactions to the connective signaling that controls our world. Herzog entertains the idea that someone could be allergic to increasingly all-consuming modernity.

Director Drew Xanthopoulos' empathetic doc The Sensitives, however, chooses to shunt causal implications, delving into the emotional aspects of day-to-day living within these afflictions. Xanthopoulos' film pegs onto photographer Thilde Jensen's Hitchcockian photo essay, Canaries, who compared those felled by near-constant irritations from extended environmental illness with metaphorical canaries in coal mines.

Xanthopoulos doesn't argue epistemology in his subjects' illnesses, nor present them as psychosomatic oddities, instead accepting them whole, meeting them where they are. He explores distinctly affected relationships, such as that of Joe, a sufferer desperately trying to hang on to his position as husband, father, and now a grandfather, and his dutiful wife, Lanie.

"What happens to him is what happens to many people who come down with an illness that just isn't going to go away, and it's severe enough to affect how functional you are in the world," explains the director. "He can't work anymore, he can't be a grandfather anymore, he can't be a functional spouse anymore."

Predictably, Joe has developed an insular point of view, which grates at his wife, whose role in Joe's life has changed, openly challenging the "for worse" portion of their marriage agreement.

"You're watching a spouse struggling with the fact that she is now becoming a caregiver," Xanthopoulos says of Lanie. "That's a different role than being a wife."

The adventurous Susie has the most nuanced approach of all the subjects, electing to pursue access in spite of her illness. She's seen and heard making calls to specific offices, planning her patronization around their pesticide and chemical cleaning schedules.

"She's not looking for approval that what she's experiencing is physical or biological," offers Xanthopoulos. "She's skipping right over that, and she's saying, 'No, it's all about access issues.' This is the foundation of the entire disabilities rights movement.

"She is essentially asking the equivalent of what someone with a wheelchair asks. 'Do you have ramps that I can access that are approved by [Americans With Disabilities Act regulations]? Am I able to get into your building to see a doctor?'"

Ultimately, The Sensitives stamps an intensely human element onto easily disbelieved figures, often displaying uncomfortable situations. Xanthopoulos displays authentic suffering and recovery, in all its relative shades. The lack of science positions the affected into an intriguing catechism, says the director.

"Sam [one in a set of twins who's been affected, along with their mother] says it perfectly: 'What's more interesting, the prisoner or the cage?'"

The Sensitives (2017)

D: Drew Xanthopoulos. (NR, 83 min.)
Texas Filmmakers. @AFS Cinema, Friday, 6:30pm.

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The Sensitives, Drew Xanthopoulos, AFS, Austin Film Society

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