Sundance Diary: "The Atomic States of America" Turns the Lens on Nuclear Power
“Watching yourself thirty feet high on the big screen is... Well, it’s quite a different experience.” That was author and essayist Kelly McMasters’ reaction to seeing the world premiere of The Atomic States of America, a film based partly upon her memoir, Welcome to Shirley.
McMasters’ book chronicled her childhood growing up in a blue-collar Long Island town next to the Brookhaven National Lab, one of the federal government’s leading nuclear research stations. In the 1990s, news broke (thanks to citizen activists and a local newspaper reporter) that Brookhaven’s three reactors regularly leaked deadly nuclear materials into the local water supply.
McMasters didn’t realize what was going on until college, when a roommate asked her, “Why are you always going home to all these funerals? What’s going on there?” The answer: Cancer, cancer, and more cancer.
Atomic States directors Sheena Joyce and Don Argott, who made the documentary Rock School in 2005, expand on McMasters’ material, looking at other nuclear power plant-adjacent communities and their chillingly similar experiences with radioactive leaks.
The great service of the film, besides being highly entertaining, is its unmasking of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Most people in towns near cooling towers had assumed the NRC was looking after their safety. Joyce and Argott make a devastating case against that assumption, showing how one more federal regulatory agency had turned into a puppet of the industry it was supposed to oversee. By the end of the film, the NRC was reminiscent of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) prior to the financial meltdown.
“At one of the documentary filmmakers forums over the weekend, we talked about this recurring theme of regulatory capture,” McMasters told me. “Again and again, we’re seeing the corporations that are supposed to be regulated take over the regulatory agency through money and politics.”
Nothing illustrates that so starkly in Atomic States as the shocking footage of Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, bowing to the humiliating taunts of Representative Joe Barton, a republican from Texas who heads the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. In the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Barton demanded to hear Chu declare he had no second thoughts about the Obama administration’s plan to give loan guarantees to private companies to build new nuclear power plants. Chu complied. “That’s what I wanted to hear,” Barton chuckled.
McMasters surely won the super trooper competition this week. With her seven-week-old son in her arms, she schlepped from theater to hotel to interview, promoting the film. During a lunch interview on Monday, she stood and answered questions in the middle of a restaurant while bouncing tiny Angus in a Baby Bjorn until the little guy dozed off. On the night of the film’s premiere, she waited until midnight for the taxi dispatcher to find a car with a baby seat. Note to Sundance: For next year’s festival, how about striking a deal with a local cab company to stock a few more baby seats. Heck, you could probably get Graco or Chicco to sponsor them...
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I caught up with National Geographic photographer James Balog last night, a few hours after the Hollywood Reporter published a rave review for Chasing Ice.
“Big moment for us today,” he told me. “We’re thrilled to pieces. There wasn’t a dissonant note in the piece.” Chasing Ice has been picking up steam all week. (See my review from Monday for the full story on the climate change documentary.) Wednesday night’s screening at the Salt Lake City Library sold out, with no extra standby tickets available. The big draw: the breathtaking beauty of Balog’s time-lapse photography.
Balog and I chatted in the lobby of the beautiful Moshe Safdie design (I live near Seattle and we know our library architecture) while patrons lined up for the 9 p.m. show. Less than a week ago, Kodak declared bankruptcy. So I asked him about financing big projects like the pan-Arctic expeditions chronicled in Chasing Ice.
“It’s been incredibly difficult,” he said. “I’ve done this project just as the still photography industry has collapsed.” Twenty years ago companies like Kodak were major sponsors of photographic expeditions. Not anymore.
And getting to the world’s most remote glaciers ain’t cheap. Balog’s annual expenses run into the six figures. Still, he hustles and scrapes to get it done.
“I believe it’s vitally important to tell the stories that need to be told right now,” he said. “If we don’t, then the master narrative of capitalism and distorted democracy ends up taking over the world. I find that unacceptable.”
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Scenes from Sundance: How dedicated are filmgoers here? Yesterday’s 8:30 a.m. screening of Detropia, a documentary about Detroit (more about that film tomorrow), was standing room only. Eight-freakin’-thirty!
Quote of the Day: “How was I to know the director was staying at our house?”
Awkward Moment: A predominantly liberal audience confronts an educated, articulate South Carolinian women hunting deer, gators, and wild hogs last night in Maria White’s documentary short, The Debutante Hunters. It was a delicious ten minutes of tension, a true assumption-breaking moment.
Best Guerrilla Marketing: I thought the Do Not Disturb-style hangtags for the romantic drama 28 Hotel Rooms were pretty clever. But then I saw the swag passed around by the makers of the documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, about China’s most famous dissident artist. Chinese food takeout boxes. For another film, it’d be borderline offensive. But for Ai Weiwei, an artist who turns media and cliché against themselves, it seemed perfect.
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