As a Chicago native, I have a vague memory of the heatwave of 1995, a days-long invisible natural disaster that ultimately took the lives of hundreds of Chicagoans who didn’t have the resources to stay cool in the three-digit temperatures. I would’ve been in middle school, and while I weathered the heat with everyone else, the news reports and Mayor Daley’s press conferences would’ve mostly gone over my head at the time. Judith Helfand’s latest film, Cooked: Survival by Zip Code, uses the heatwave as a launching pad for a film about disaster preparedness, disaster relief and how the United States systematically fails the most vulnerable among us in both.
In this way, the title is slightly misleading, as just about an act of the 81-minute film really focuses on the heatwave. Helfand interviews the city officials who worked through the crisis as well as authors and activists with insights into why the death toll rose as high as it did (over 700 souls by some counts). The film recounts the timeline of the weather event and the city’s response (which all happened exactly 24 years ago this week), from Mayor Daley’s attempts to downplay the intensity of the heat to the food refrigeration trucks called in to store all the bodies of those who’d fallen victim. Interviews with those who lost family members are especially poignant; it’s clear the memory of that extreme summer weather hasn’t faded more than two decades later.
The film zooms in on the fall-out from the heatwave as practices like decades-old housing segregation laws and gerrymandered aldermanic districts throughout the city all but ensured Chicago would develop into a street-by-street checkerboard of haves and have nots. The more she digs into it, the more Helfand becomes concerned (justifiably) with the bigger implications and long-term ramifications of ever-more-frequent natural disasters (within which a heatwave should certainly be classified). The film evolves into a lecture on the inequality of government support systems—a valid position to be sure, if one that won’t come as news to anyone who’s watching. Over and over, we see the human face of these injustices, as eventually the film’s scope expands to reference the severely inadequate response to 2005’s Hurricane Katrina and an even broader exploration of the mortality rate based on race and, yes, zip code.
At one point, Helfand posits that even disaster preparedness is a privilege, one that only communities stable enough to think about the future can afford. Those struggling to survive day to day, the film successfully argues, are already behind the eight ball long before a heatwave, hurricane or tornado ever hits. It’s a stark realization, to be sure. Conversations with community activists offer glimpses of hope (neighborhood gardens attempt to fill gaps left by food deserts, for example), while interviews with FEMA authorities prove nearly infuriating, the bureaucracy of the system crippling to the point of inexcusable. Cooked is a film that, even if it plays as a bit indecisive about its own focal point, adds its voice to the chorus of those calling for change.
Cooked: Survival by Zip Code is playing at the Gene Siskel Film Center.
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