Muerto Canyon

2001, 30 mins. (NYU)
Director/Writer/Editor: Jennifer Peel
Producers: Jennifer Peel and Heather E. Peel
Director of Photography: Paul Gentry
Composer: Jamie Hall, compose
Cast: Keith Egawa, Jake Waid
In Jennifer Peel's Muerto Canyon, the hanta virus sweeps through a Native American community in New Mexico, and tolerance is among the casualties. Peel, a Wisconsin native who now lives in Seattle, has constructed her film as a kind of medical thriller, in which a dedicated Native American doctor and a Center for Disease Control researcher work to find the link and cause of the debilitating and sometimes fatal virus.

The subject is perfect for Peel, who grew up wanting to become a forensic scientist for the FBI. The FBI hiring freeze put an end to that ambition, and, with an undergraduate degree in justice and forensic science, Peel found herself applying to graduate school. One of the programs that accepted her was New York University's film program, and, as she says, she has never looked back.

Her work before Muerto Canyon has appeared on PBS and in international festivals. The inspiration for the film, which is based on a real incident, came to Peel after she read The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World out of Balance, by Laurie Garrett. Peel says that what attracted her to the story was "the fact that the scientists and doctors were really fighting two battles: they were fighting the disease as well as prejudice." Peel says it would have been impossible not to notice the parallels between the hanta virus outbreak and AIDS. We see them in the film: a waitress dons rubber gloves to serve a man from the Native American community a cup of coffee; a television reporter, replete with surgical mask, corners the doctor to mine the hysteria. It's an attitude that contrasts strongly with Peel's cool, matter-of-fact approach. Muerto Canyon is her attempt to do justice to both the world of science that has always attracted her and the world of filmmaking, in which she found an unexpected place for herself.
Online Resources
Tracking the hantavirus, CDC
About hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, AAFP