Nicky Nuke graphic by artist Peter Kuper

Containment Filmmakers Go into the Future to Read the Warning Signs

January 06, 2017 by Craig Phillips in Interviews

Harvard professors and filmmakers Peter Galison and Robb Moss have been collaborating for a decade: first, in co-teaching a course, bringing student filmmakers into scientific laboratories to think about the way the real work of technology, medicine, and science could be put on film. Then, they co-directed Secrecy, a 2008 feature documentary about the moral, political, and technological controversies surrounding national security secrecy. (Moss’s film The Same River Twice was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, and Galison’s film on the moral-political debates over the H-bomb, Ultimate Weapon: The H-bomb Dilemma, has been shown frequently on the History Channel.)

Their new film, Containment, which premieres on Independent Lens January 9 at 10 pm [check local listings], grew first out of work Peter was doing (in print) on “the strange new lands that are at once our wild, biodiverse landscapes, and at the same time some of our most radiologically contaminated,” they told us. “The two of us were utterly taken aback by the ambition of the Department of Energy to mark one of these sites against digging — for a period of 10,000 years. We began our discussions around this extraordinary, tragic, and yet somehow ultimately hopeful project of speaking to our 10,000-year future.”

“Moss and Galison employ startling documentary footage and scintillating sci-fi-like animation in examining the danger [of nuclear waste storage],” wrote Peter Keough in the Boston Globe. Read on for more about the making of this unique film.

Can you talk about your approach in making a film that is at least in part about imagining the future? How did you decide on using a kind of graphic novel-style animation?

When Congress passed their bill authorizing the nuclear repository near Carlsbad New Mexico — the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) — it was to be regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency which did what it always does: it ascertained how long the materials would remain toxic. Since the half-life of plutonium was 24,000 years, the Department of Energy had to envision how to protect people from accidentally intruding into the site… for some 400 generations. For decades, scenario writing has been a way that nuclear war and defense technologists have tried to imagine the future 10 or 20 years ahead. These were short outlines, a “what-if” sketch, not a full-on science fiction story. So when the Department of Energy had to explore why people might dig into the waste in the year 6,000 AD or 11,000 AD, they called on futurists to do the same.

Self-portrait of artist Peter Kuper
Self-portrait of artist Peter Kuper

[For the film] we thought that the sketchier, partial, non-realistic visual form of the graphic novel would be a perfect way of imagining a future twice as far from us as the beginning of recorded history. Collaborating with artist Peter Kuper — graphic novel animator — was a huge pleasure; we worked together on these scenarios for years to get them to that delicate mix of dead seriousness and wild exaggeration.

Were you sci-fi fans when younger, and today? And how did that inform the making of this film, which is science, but has that sci-fi movie feel to it at times?

Peter Galison: I loved science fiction when I was growing up and still do today. It has been and in fact is ever more a genre that is open-ended, exploratory, and fiercely imaginative. And here, in this story, what a possibility! We had the American government itself, the hard-nosed DOE Sandia Laboratory, commissioning a science-fiction-infused sketch of a future — in order to open a nuclear waste repository.  Fantastic.

Robb Moss: The only author to whom I ever wrote a fan letter was Ray Bradbury (I was fourteen, and he wrote me back!). I loved sci-fi as a kid, and still make a point of seeing most contemporary sci-fi films with my adult daughters. Documentaries are often tethered to what you can point the camera at; again, by using animation, we found a (modest) way to film the future.

Street in ghost town Namie, Fukushima, Japan
Street in ghost town Namie, Fukushima, Japan

Which part of the film holds the most power for you?

There is a moment when we see the Aneyoshi tsunami monument appear on the side of the road — roughly speaking it says, “for a good life, no matter how many years go by, never build below this point.” The Japanese who erected this marker more than a century ago had, of course, no idea that so many years later a tsunami would crash against the shore of Japan killing more than 20,000 and precipitating a triple nuclear meltdown. It was, in a vivid sense, warning us — we are their future. But that effort to warn an unknown time in the future echoes eerily with our attempts today to mark nuclear waste for our far-distant future. This scene is the first where these lines intersect — later in the film they hit again, as both the Japanese of the past and those of us in the present explore the notion of storytelling itself as a way of speaking to the future.

More than anything else, we were struck by the generosity and humanity of people doing tough work, living in tough places — folks living in the mostly intact houses near the wreckage of the Fukushima plant, miners assembling in the elevator as they descended into the underground Waste Isolation Plant. Far from the cities where electricity and nuclear weapons are abstractions, the worlds we encountered filming surrounding nuclear disposal are the very material circumstances of everyday life and work. Nothing struck us more than the commitment and conviction of people on all sides of these nuclear worlds, from scientists and engineers to miners, neighbors, and activists.

Robb Moss and Peter Galison
Robb Moss and Peter Galison

Did making this film make you more, or less, pessimistic about the future? Do you think humanity will solve our toxic waste disposal issue in a way that will allow future generations to co-exist with it?

There is one way making the film left us very optimistic: here was a project in which experts from a variety of fields where the government asked a hugely talented group of experts to contemplate the future — and our responsibility — for hundreds of generations into the future. What a departure from the usual thinking that only brings us to the end of this fiscal quarter or the 2, 4, or 6-year terms of our politicians. Maybe this exercise in imagining ahead will leave us more inclined to think about the future of the planet in many other ways.  

Is there more of an environmentalist presence in the Savannah River area than there used to be? Have you screened your film there and if so what was reaction to it?

Indeed, the Savannah River itself is a crucial site, for both South Carolina and for Georgia. It is used for recreation, for boating, for fishing and for water.  Increasingly, people are concerned about pollution in the river — by mercury and PCB’s for example, but also, as we see in the film, by the radioactive isotopes that emerge from the Savannah River Site. With both Augusta and Savannah, Georgia on the river, we were certainly in conversation with many people who care deeply about the river when we showed the film at the 2016 Savannah Film Festival.

Along those lines you have several former NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) chairs interviewed for the filmdid they or you worry about any repercussions from the NRC or do you think the NRC is on board with the idea of exploring and criticizing the way our country has thought about nuclear waste?

Ever since it began operating in 1975,  the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has had a complicated role. Created to protect safety at nuclear power and other civilian atomic facilities, it is buffeted left and right by politicians with strong views on nuclear matters as well as by a powerful energy industry, activist groups, atomic workers, and adjacent communities. Gregg Jaczko, who appears in the film, had a stormy relation with various Congressional committeesAllison Macfarlane, who also appears in Containment, was sharply voted down in her quest to see older, colder spent fuel rods removed from cooling pools.

So absolutely: everyone we spoke to had some concerns about how the film would come out. Nuclear power, weapons, wastethese are very contentious topics. Our mantra was that each person we spoke to would certainly find others in the film with whom they sharply disagreed. But we promised everyone that we would work very hard to make sure each person would recognize his or her own position as correctly represented. We’ve been on any number of public panels discussing the film with Alison Macfarlane.

What are your three favorite/most influential documentaries or feature films?

Peter Galison: Three films come to mind immediately that have been particularly formative for my thinking about making films. First, there’s Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s Chronicle of a Summer (1961) — famous for being one of the very earliest films made with portable sound, an innovation that made possible the emerging mode of Cinema Verité. But what endlessly fascinates me is the way it captured a moment poised between a world that could have been filmed in 1930 and the one we still inhabit today. More than that, the film loops around over and over, interrogating its subjects, its society, and its filmmaking. Second, Jon Else’s The Day After Trinity (1981). This thoughtful exploration of the life and moral-political history of the atomic bomb had a huge effect on me —it was the first time I saw how it might be possible to film in the scientific-technical domain with real filmmaking at its core, not just the triumph of plastics or the race to DNA. I began working on my first film, Ultimate Weapon (with Pam Hogan), shortly after seeing this.

Third, Tom Twyker’s 1998 Run Lola Run, an oddball, wonderful, German crime film.  It opened, for me, the possibility of working with animation as an imaginative element of film integrated into live action—and not at all as a mere illustration. This began for me the thought — and with Robb Moss the reality — of bringing animation into documentary in ways that went where the live elements simply could not go.

Robb Moss: Here are three films I saw in college (1968-72) that first led me to think I might want to become a filmmaker: Sherlock Jr. (Buster Keaton 1924) — for its improbable, joyful cinematic invention, I saw this film a dozen times as an undergraduate; Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960) — I was mesmerized by how Godard shattered the filmmaking rules of the day, I loved how transgressive the filmmaking was; High School (Fred Wiseman 1968) — I was stunned that a film could know the world by intimately observing it with a camera.

What film/project(s) are you working on next?

Moss: [I’ve] begun working on the third piece of my river trilogy, exploring the unfolding of lives over a forty-year period.

Galison: Starting a film about black holes and the philosophical questions they raise about time, space, and the limits of knowledge.

Craig Phillips

Craig is the digital content producer for Independent Lens, based in San Francisco. He is a film nerd, cartoonist, classic film poster collector, wannabe screenwriter, and owner of/owned by cats.