(The 2023 Tribeca Film Festival runs June 7-18 and HtN has a ton of coverage coming like Chris Reed’s Richland documentary movie review. Seen it? Join the conversation with HtN on our Letterboxd Page.)
Washington State’s Hanford Nuclear Site was established in 1943, as part of the Manhattan Project, and produced weapons-grade plutonium used in the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, at the end of World War II. Located just south of the plant is the town of Richland, subject of filmmaker Irene Lusztig’s eponymous documentary, Richland. Combining archival material, interviews with local inhabitants of all ages and backgrounds, and other modern-day footage (all of it beautifully photographed by cinematographer Helki Frantzen), Lusztig (Yours in Sisterhood) creates a gently probing portrait of a diverse community that is as American as, well, nuclear bombs.
That’s not a flippant descriptor. Richland’s high-school mascot is, in fact, the “Bomber,” with a mushroom cloud their proud logo, even if we meet some folks who have tried to change that and participate in at least one conversation with students as they discuss, in delightfully nuanced ways, their town’s legacy. Throughout, Lusztig proves a marvelous navigator of thorny issues, allowing a multiplicity of points of view their place in the cinematic sun.
A predominantly white settlement when first created, Richland is also home to the original, indigenous populations: the Wanapum, Yakama Nation, Confederated Tribes of Umatilla Indian Reservation, and Nez Perce Tribe, members of which work to clean up the area (as best as one can). The environmental damage to the landscape is hard to measure, although once nuclear waste is buried in the ground, its contamination sticks around for a long time (think millennia).
Lusztig proves especially adroit at drawing out her interviewees, allowing them full rein to speak their minds on Richland and its complicated history. As we might expect, there are those who embrace the past and the dropping of the bombs on Japan, others who don’t, and every opinion in between. The great appeal of the documentary is this very panoply of thought, showing that the world can exist in shades of gray.
Another wonderful aspect is the inclusion of Kathleen Flenniken’s poetry, as published in her 2012 collection Plume. Flenniken hails from Richland, herself, and her elegant verses, read out loud by select residents, provide insightful and lyrical commentary on the narrative. Among their themes are the toll not only on the environment but on those who worked at Hanford, many of whom did so in unsafe conditions. That’s another part of the heritage.
Lusztig also includes the art (and its installation) of Japanese artist Yukiyo Kawano, who visits to speak to the community (noting that she is the only person of color in that particular space at that time) and temporarily set up her “Fat Man folded” sculpture. This is a life-size replica of the Nagasaki bomb, made using her grandmother’s kimono fabric and stitched using Kawano’s own hair (her grandmother survived the nuclear attack). It’s a powerful visual on which to end the movie, reminding us of the totality of the human experience, in all its complexity.
– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)
2023 Tribeca Film Festival; Irene Lusztig; Richland documentary movie review