Filmmaker Alex Bledsoe Seeks Families in Oakland Who Experienced Lead Poisoning

An image of an African American woman walking in front of a fence, with long braids and a green sweatshirt. She is smiling.
Filmmaker Alex Bledsoe. Photo by Adrian L Burrell.

A new documentary in the works, OAKLEAD, focuses on lead poisoning in Oakland’s Fruitvale district, and beyond.

The project is directed by Alex J. Bledsoe, an emerging and accomplished filmmaker who has already made her mark in the film world. She was recently named one of YBCA’s 100 Honorees for 2020. Bledsoe’s first film, which is still in the works, is also the one that lead her to pursuing this path as a filmmaker.

Bledsoe first learned of lead poisoning in Oakland when the news made headlines in 2016 that the neighborhood she was living in, Fruitvale, had lead contamination worse than in Flint, Michigan. In fact, the same report showed that 3,000 other locations in the U.S. had lead poisoning worse than in Flint.

“I’ve been on a journey to figure out why lead poisoning, the longest pediatric epidemic in U.S. history, is still ongoing, and why there is a lack of widespread awareness and institutional action on the issue,” Bledsoe said.

Bledsoe was working a tech job in Silicon Valley in 2016, but found herself researching the topic during her commute. She eventually quit her job to pursue filmmaking full-time. Describing it as environmental racism, Bledsoe hopes to shine a light on this “silent, national epidemic that needs immediate attention.”

Bledsoe was a one-woman team for a while when she started the documentary project in 2017, and later, Vincent Cortez contributed cinematography. Adrian L. Burrell joined the project as producer.

An image of the night sky in Fruitvale, Oakland. All is dark except a few lights from the homes and "Fruitvale" sign.
Photo by Sudan Sethu.

In 2018 while still developing the documentary, Bledsoe co-founded Breaktide Productions, a film company created by women of color, with co-founders Jalena Keane-Lee (Standing Above the Clouds) and Reaa Puri (K for Kashmir).

While working on OAKLEAD, Bledsoe directed and produced other films. Bledsoe is a line producer for the narrative feature film Residue, which has won festival awards and has garnered rave reviews from the New York Times, Rolling Stones, The New Yorker, and beyond. The film centers around a screenwriter who returns to Washington, D.C. and witnesses the effects of gentrification. Residue is now streaming on Netflix.

Bledsoe has another film in post-production, a short documentary titled Heart Race, about her cousin who is seeking a heart transplant and focuses on his life and trials of navigating the health care system. All of the projects she works on, whether documentaries or films for corporations such as Nike, focus on social issues or the intersection of health, environment, and race.

COVID-19 has put a temporary halt to in-person production on OAKLEAD, but Bledsoe continues to work on it. Recently, Bledsoe received funding from the Berkeley Film Foundation and The Redford Center.

Even though the headlines around lead poisoning have largely disappeared, it continues to impact families in Oakland and throughout the United States. An estimated half a million children in the U.S. currently experience lead poisoning. It can affect a child’s brain development, leading to neurological damage with effects such as learning disabilities and behavioral issues, and sometimes even death. The lead can be inhaled or ingested from old paint, and also from contaminated dust, soil and water.

Bledsoe is currently seeking more families from Oakland, and any families in the Bay Area, who may be interested in sharing their stories. If interested, please contact her via her website or email her at info@breaktide.co.

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Alex Bledsoe is an alumna of the Maynard 200 Fellowship, a project of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education. Oakland Voices is a project of the Maynard Institute.

About Momo Chang

Momo Chang is a freelance journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is the Oakland Voices Alumni Coordinator. Her work focuses on healthcare, immigration, education, Asian American communities, food and culture. She is a former staff writer at the Oakland Tribune. Momo has received journalism awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for investigative reporting and the Asian American Journalists Association, among others. Her work has appeared in the East Bay Express, San Francisco Chronicle, Wired, and The New York Times. Momo is primarily a print journalist who also produces audio and visual stories for documentary film and radio. She is a Senior Contributing Editor for Hyphen and formerly the Content Manager at the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM). View all posts by Momo Chang →

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