In Sicily, A Plague of Cancer Overwhelms an Oil Refinery Town

The winner of the 2018 Yale Environment 360 Video Contest examines how the people of Augusta, Sicily, led by the town’s priest, are fighting back against a cancer epidemic linked to a massive petrochemical complex.

2018 Yale Environment 360 Video Contest

The Augusta-Priolo petroleum refinery complex, one of Europe’s largest, has for more than 50 years spewed a toxic brew of pollutants into the air and water of eastern Sicily. In recent decades, the roughly 60,000 residents of surrounding towns have experienced abnormally high rates of cancer, an outbreak that one comprehensive study has shown is tied to emissions from the refineries.

In his new documentary, “Venerable Augusta” — winner of the 2018 Yale Environment 360 Video Contest — Italian filmmaker Francesco Cannavà depicts the crisis in Augusta and nearby towns through the eyes of the local priest, Father Palmiro Prisutto. We follow him and other Augusta residents as they stage a demonstration against government inaction in the face of a deadly epidemic. “The accusation I am making today against the Italian state is this: Our cancer dead have been murdered,” says Prisutto. “For some time, the population has repeated this chorus: ‘Better to die of cancer than of hunger.’ This saying is unacceptable. One cannot trade health and life merely for a job.”

Also featured in the film is Augusta resident and cancer patient Carmelo Miano, who, shortly before he dies, says, “The Fifth Commandment says, ‘Thou shall not kill.’ Here, instead, they are killing everyone.’”

About the Filmmaker: A Rome-based film director and screenwriter, Francesco Cannavà has made documentary films on subjects ranging from human evolution, to Greek grave masks on the Aeolian Islands, to Italian youth soccer. His films have won awards at European film festivals and have been screened at numerous international festivals, including the Tribeca Film Festival in New York.

About the Contest: The Yale Environment 360 Video Contest honors the year’s best environmental films, with the aim of recognizing work that has not previously been widely seen. Entries for 2018 were received from six continents, with a prize of $2,000 going to the first-place winner.