Nukes and oil: Environmental themes at Full Frame festival

DURHAM, N.C. – My press pass gave me entree to ten films over the course of four days – and on the final day I squeezed in a couple more. One had to pick and choose discerningly among a hundred or more offerings, knowing that you would surely miss some important ones.

The two films relating to environmental themes that I was able to catch were Containment, co-directed by Peter Galison and Robb Moss, in its world premiere screening, and Bikes vs. Cars, by Fredrik Gertten. Each of these took on a topic of global scope and included footage from far-flung corners of the earth to make its point.

Containment is about the attempt to store toxic nuclear waste in a manner that will be effective for tens of thousands of years. The directors include commentary from true believers who are convinced they have the solution, and skeptics who challenge the nuclear industry’s bromides and facile assurances.

Containment takes us to Fukushima, a wasteland after an earthquake and tsunami destroyed a nuclear power plant that should never, never, never have been built. We also go to the Savannah River in Aiken, S.C., where waste storage is all above ground, threatening to seep into the surrounding land and water. Local alligators and turtles there are deemed to be radioactive – and people eat them! A third locale is the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, N.M., where nuclear waste is stored in 900-foot deep underground vaults protected by a thick vein of solid salt. The eerie footage there is eye-opening and mind-boggling, and for several reasons that site may never again be open for filming.

There are an estimated 60-70 nuclear waste storage facilities in the U.S. alone. Any one or more of them could be an instant disaster, but Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials are forbidden to discuss how unsafe they might be. The question of a community’s support for a facility is critical. But by whose consent? The voters of a town? How about the county or the state or neighboring states? And how about the “consent” of people in the future? It’s forever.

Problems abound. The fact is, nowhere in the world do we really have a secure system for storage of nuclear waste, whether created for peaceful or military purposes. Even if we stop producing more of the stuff tomorrow, we still have to manage what we’ve got already. Strangely, I heard no one in this film utter the words “Pandora’s box.” 

The filmmakers treat us to a little morbid fun when they interview futurologists – engineers, designers, philosophers – about the challenge of warning the Earth’s inhabitants tens of thousands of years from now about the dangers of the waste sites we have created for them, when they will not speak our language nor understand our symbology. Stonehenge was built 6,000 years ago. So 10,000 years ago, when civilization began, Stonehenge was science fiction still 4,000 years into the future! That’s just the beginning of the perspective we’re talking about.

Which reminds me of an incident that occurred in August 1980, when I traveled to the USSR on a three-week trip with Promoting Enduring Peace. We met with the local Peace Committees in each of the five major cities we visited. At one session, where we focused on the issue of nuclear power, I raised the problem of nuclear waste storage. Our panelists assured us that from our point of view this was a reasonable question, for in a capitalist society contractors took advantage of every loophole and cut every corner to maximize profits, so no wonder our nuclear plants were not safe (this was shortly following a spate of activity around the Seabrook nuclear power plant in New Hampshire). But in the Soviet Union, a socialist country, they go the extra mile to ensure that every precaution is put into place, every safeguard secure, because the government and the nuclear industry and the people are all one and share the same interests. I said, Fine, but how long is the radioactive half-life of nuclear waste – 25,000 years? – and how can you know that this country will still be socialist at that time?

Some members of our own group rose to object to my “hostile” questions. But afterward, one of the panelists approached me over refreshments, saying that the answers I had been offered were too overconfident, and that in fact some scientists in the USSR were asking the same questions. Needless to say, of course, six years later Chernobyl blew, and the way the government handled that incident contributed mightily toward undermining people’s basic trust in the system.

At the Q&A following Containment, the directors called on one man in the audience who said, “I’ve been coming to Full Frame for 18 years and have seen hundreds of films here. This is the first time I’ve ever watched a film and needed to ask, Where is the nearest bar?” The implications of this film are truly chilling. People – and their governments – had better make some serious commitments to a non-nuclear future soon, like now.

Bikes vs. Cars (is that all there is?)

Did you know that Copenhagen and Amsterdam are the bicycle capitals of the world? The Danish capital city has 1000 kilometers of bike lanes, and 40 percent of its people commute by bike – more bicycle commuters than in the entire U.S. Part of the reason for that is that neither Denmark nor the Netherlands has a domestic auto industry.

The car industry is the number one spender in advertising dollars, and in the U.S., the oil companies are the number three lobby. Many societies, including the U.S., measure their economic health by the number of cars sold – worldwide, some 82.3 million sold in 2013.

Auto and Big Oil conspire to build ever more, and ever wider freeways to accommodate the one billion cars on the world’s roads in 2012, projected to double in number within a decade if middle-class consumerist trends continue their trajectory in places like Brazil and India. Soon 25 million cars will be sold annually in China. And where will we park them all??!!

No other industry is strong enough to confront the combined power of cars and oil to combat its influence, although no specific reference came up as to Big Oil’s role in global politics and war.

Director Gertten focuses his camera on bicycle activists in São Paulo, Brazil, who lose an average of one biker a week to the 7 million cars on the city’s congested streets. Politicians there have remained unresponsive to requests for bike lanes and safer roadways, although recently the movement is toward more accommodation. In Toronto, by contrast, the backward-looking administration of Mayor Rob Ford actually ripped out miles of existing bike lanes to make room for more cars.

Bikes vs. Cars is forceful and pointed, yet I wanted it to be better. What I did not appreciate in the end was the overly simplistic binary premise encapsulated in its title. The film spends time reminding us that the famous trolley lines of Los Angeles were bought up by GM, only to be destroyed so as to sell more cars. But L.A. has spent billions of dollars in the last couple of decades, with state and federal investment, creating a metro system for its far-reaching sprawl that more and more people are using every day. Commuters in cars drive from the exurbs to the expansive free parking lots at metro rail stations to ride into or around town. Almost always, on city buses as well as on the metro, one also sees bikers conveniently letting mass transit take them and their bikes part of the route so they can get off at their stop and continue on their way.

I have been to many cities – New York, Chicago, the San Francisco Bay Area, London, Paris, Moscow, Prague, Berlin, Mexico City, Tokyo, and Seoul – where metro systems succeed in moving large numbers of people around. They are the hardworking arteries pumping the urban heart and lungs. Any forward-looking urbanism must take the intersection of all three modes of transportation into account. To basically ignore one is at best disingenuous. A statement is voiced toward the end of the film that the only solution is to make it much more expensive to own cars, but I would suggest also to make it much cheaper to ride public transit.

Too much passionate advocacy can work against the cause if your viewers feel used, their intelligence underestimated. Perhaps when all the reviews are counted, mine will be a minority opinion, but I so wished this otherwise enlightening film had been more nuanced, integrated and balanced.

As an indication of the cornucopia of offerings screening at Full Frame every year, environmental films in 2015 also included Marshall Curry’s If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, Jennifer Baichwal’s Manufactured Landscapes, Phie Ambo’s Good Things Await, Betzabé García’s Kings of Nowhere, Chad Stevens’s Overburden, Brent E. Huffman’s Saving Mes Aynak, and George Butler’s Tiger Tiger. One simply couldn’t take them all in.


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.