Profs produce film on nuclear landscape of Southwest

(03-27-2018)

As a graduate student in Boulder, Taylor Dunne initially admired the beauty of nearby Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge. Then she learned its history. Formerly a nuclear weapons plant, Rocky Flats was closed in 1989 and became a Superfund clean-up site. That realization led Dunne to begin a film project that focuses on the nuclear landscape of the American Southwest. Specifically, it explores the impacts of three U.S. nuclear weapons sites: Rocky Flats, the White Sands Missile Range (Trinity Test Site) in New Mexico, and the Nevada Test Site.

The assistant professor of mass communications was joined on the project by her partner, Eric Stewart, who is an assistant professor of art. Both earned an MFA in studio arts at University of Colorado - Boulder. Their experimental documentary, "Off Country," looks at the environmental impact of the nuclear weapons industry and its effects on people in nearby communities.

Filmmakers Eric Stewart (left) and Taylor Dunne, both assistant professors at Adams State.

Over the last four years, they have driven over 10,000 miles, shot a mile of S16mm film, amassed 30 gigabytes of audio recordings, and conducted countless hours of interviews. To support their production, they've raised about $14,000 through a Kickstarter campaign and grants.

In producing "Off Country," Stewart and Dunne met with activists and interviewed people affected by nuclear fallout. "People have dedicated their lives to this issue for the good of mankind. That's what's so inspiring about this project," Dunne said. "Radiation is invisible, but it makes itself visible in the environment. We also investigate the racist and classist policies that are inherent in the storage, mining, and production of radioactive material."

For example, Stewart points out that when White Sands was chosen as the testing site for the Manhattan Project, it was described as "a vast, uninhabited desert," when, in fact, 40,000 people lived near Ground Zero. Nearby Tularosa is a Hispanic community that dates back to the 1600's and is adjacent to the Mescalero Reservation. "How is that population not there? There has been a refusal to acknowledge the exposure to radiation and the genetic component that passed through the generations," Stewart said. Coincidentally, they learned the San Luis Valley, also with a large Hispanic population, had been considered for the Trinity Test Site, as well.

"We see this repeated in all three sites: it is assumed a test site is static, unchanging, and expendable. People have referred to them as national sacrifice zones," Stewart added.

Dunne noted, "There were a lot of people living near the Trinity Site at White Sands. During the summer of 1945 (when testing took place), people were harvesting and canning - they got radiation in their food. They collected their water in open air cisterns. Their livestock was exposed to radiation when grazing."

Stewart and Dunne chose to produce their documentary in 16 mm black and white film. "A lot of people think that is crazy, but I like to work with it," Dunne said. "It allows us to reference landscape photography of the West, such as that by Ansel Adams, and photos of the atomic tests. But we very intentionally are not including film footage of the tests themselves. We want to focus on people, not technology." The film will be bilingual and focus on nuclear weapons testing, manufacturing and storage, with an emphasis on social justice and environmental restoration. Another component of the project is an oral history archive compiling first-person accounts and interviews.

Stewart and Dunne have begun the editing phase of the project and hope to complete the film in 2019. "This is a critical time. Russia and the U.S. are modernizing their nuclear stockpiles," Stewart explained. "In Los Alamos, they are making new plutonium pits for weapons that used to be done at Rocky Flats. The production of it is so toxic for where we live."