© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

In 'Richland,' a town created by the atomic bomb grapples with its past

a ghostly fabric sculpture hangs from a frame in a scrubby, high desert
Courtesy of RICHLAND
Richland features an installation of the artist's Yukiyo Kawano, a Hiroshima native and third-generation atomic bomb survivor. The sculpture is a replica of the Fat Man bomb, sewn with the artist's own hair and made of remnants of her grandmother's kimonos. It was installed near the Hanford Reach National Monument in Aug. 2021, marking the 76th anniversary of the Nagasaki bombing.

Last year, the story of Oppenheimer captivated millions. But that was the Hollywood version of the atomic bomb’s history. A new documentary takes a step back and offers a more complicated look.

During the Manhattan Project, the U.S. government built a small Washington company town in support of the Hanford nuclear site, where workers manufactured weapons-grade plutonium. It’s a history that has shaped Richland’s identity. In Richland, documentary filmmaker Irene Lusztig explores what it means for a town to take pride in such a violent heritage — and how residents are grappling with this legacy now.

I spoke with Lusztig ahead of Richland’s screening at the Milwaukee Film Festival.

a portrait of a white woman with curly reddish hair
Courtesy of Irene Lusztig
Irene Lusztig, director of Richland.

How did your work start on this project? What drew you to Richland’s story? 

I actually learned about Richland in a pretty roundabout and not intentional way. I was working between maybe 2015 and 2017, I was shooting this totally different film called Yours in Sisterhood, where I was doing these really massive road trips all over the U.S. That film was based on letters that had been sent to Ms. magazine in the 70s. So, totally different topic. But it was basically finding letters and traveling to the communities where letters had been sent from in the 70s.

I pretty accidentally found a letter that was sent from Richland in the 70s to Ms. and then ended up in Richland for 24 hours and did some shooting there. I just got really kind of obsessed just from the one pretty short visit. I hadn't heard about Hanford. As I've screened the film around the country, I find that people in the Pacific Northwest may have heard of Hanford, and then it's quite invisible still to the rest of the country. Which is interesting — like Los Alamos is a site that people know much better. Hanford was much larger, it was 600 square miles. It was really the largest kind of scaled-up production site of the Manhattan Project, but it's pretty off people's radars still.

I was there for 24 hours. I filmed with Trisha Pritikin, who's also in Richland. She's the woman who shows the baby graves in town. I think I just became so — initially so curious and interested about what it meant for a community to have such a visible nuclear weapon as a heritage symbol. But then also, in that moment of 2015, 2016 when I first went there, as the Trump election was happening, as all of these new forms of U.S. conservatism were becoming more and more visible, I think I just had an intuition that in this community, it could be a place where I could think through much bigger questions. Of how we live with our histories, what we look at, what we turn away from — kind of all of the bigger questions in the film were things I was thinking about in that time.

a group of diverse high schoolers sit in the grass in a circle outside a brick school building
Helki Frantzen
Courtesy of RICHLAND
Nuclear imagery is found throughout the town, like the bomber logo at Richland High School. In the film, these students wrestle with their mixed feelings about their school mascot, the Bomber.

What were the contents of that first letter? Did it have some of this…emotional tangled knot that you’re diving into in the film?

You know, it was less complex. It was kind of an anti-nuclear letter. It didn't have the complexity that the community has. It was written by — actually the woman who wrote it had a pretty similar story to Trisha herself. And Trisha within the film, I think, is also the most, you know, anti-Hanford person in terms of how clear her politics are. But yeah, it was written by someone who had also lost their father, who had been a Hanford worker.

But that complexity became pretty apparent to you from that first day you spent there.

In the town, yes. Because really, there's a way — anyone who comes into the town, there's this kind of incredibly visible layer of just visual nuclear heritage. Where there's, you know, restaurants and bowling alleys and, as you see in the film, street names. It's really everywhere, visually in the town. I think it really felt like just a big question hanging over the town — of what is this relationship to history? What does it mean? What does it mean to value and cherish these really violent symbols? The complexity, I think, felt really on the surface to me right away.

The film explores the town's identity alongside themes of nationalism, home and safety.
Helki Frantzen
Courtesy of RICHLAND
The film explores the town's identity alongside themes of nationalism, home and safety.

That being said, there aren't really easy answers in Richland. Like, did America do the right thing or the wrong thing? Or did the government mistreat the people who worked for it or did they have good, family-supporting jobs? Why was that tone important to you?

I've actually watched a lot of nuclear films as I researched this film. I feel there's very few nuclear films that are not advocacy films that are taking a really clear stance that's either pro-nuclear or anti-nuclear. I think it's an issue where it produces such divisive politics that it's actually hard to hold a conversation at all, where there's complexity and recognition of what different people are holding, around their own experiences and lives and in nuclear communities.

I think I knew from the beginning that I was not interested in making a position film. But really, my questions were — and I always start with questions — I think I really wanted to think pretty deeply about what are the structural forces that are shaping conservative politics. And to me, a lot of the answers to that are in this kind of complexity, of how do you reckon with work that's good work, that puts food on the table, that supports your family? And then what's the kind of storytelling you need to do to not feel horrible about your life and what you do for a living? So whether that's attaching to really patriotic national narratives, whether that's attaching to a kind of conservative set of national discourses or policies, whether that's just, you know, not wanting to think about nuclear harm, either within your own community or to Japanese communities, or Indigenous communities or downwind communities.

What I was really interested in was that question of what is the structure of that? And then how does that shape our politics? It's a different starting point, I think, from starting with “nuclear weapons are horrible and have caused harm” or “nuclear energy is great, and it's gonna solve our energy transition crisis.”

a dated photo of a small home with a white picket fence and flowers
US Department of Energy Hanford Collection
The US government built the company town to staff its Hanford manufacturing site. Many residents celebrate the heritage and history of the housing stock in Richland.

It's almost more challenging. Because I'm used to engaging with nuclear stories where there is a clear position. I'm thinking about this in a big election year again — you mentioned that this project started in a big election season. Maybe there's a desire or need to understand people and perspectives that may be different from our own. What did you learn about having those difficult conversations?

I mean, that was the whole project for me, honestly. Like I really wanted to actually challenge myself to do that kind of listening, that's generous, that's not judgmental, that's making space for holding people's positions with complexity. Like letting people talk for long enough that you actually understand their position in a complicated way, rather than reducing them to a simple position. Which I think is often what can happen in a more advocacy-oriented, sort of talking heads documentary. People just appear briefly to represent a position, but they're not holding all the complexity of who they are and what shaped their opinions.

That work feels politically urgent to me. And that was really, that was what I wanted to do, actually. Give myself the challenge of what it would feel like to really spend time to build relationships, to listen generously. I found it very transformative to do that, and I think it's important. It's important work to push through moments where it feels uncomfortable, or you hear something that you want to reject, or you really don't agree with. But then what can happen if you just stay in the conversation, and let it unfold more, and just try to hear where that person is coming from? It's small-scale work, but I really feel it's urgent political work that a lot of us should be doing now.

What comes to mind is the scene from the doughnut shop where you're talking to the two men. One man, the older man on the left, is super open and talks to you right away. And the one on the right seems a little bit more aware of the camera. He's like, “I don't really feel like saying anything yet.” But you sit there long enough, and then he opens up, and then shares this song that is amazing. That is such a good example of what kind of moment arrives when you wait for it.

Yeah, absolutely. I think of that scene also as one where you just really feel this pain of, you know, violence and lyricism entangled together. Where the first man who's more open, you know, tells a racist joke about bombing the Japanese, sings a war song that’s kind of uncomfortable. I think there's a initial — for a lot of viewers — kind of push-away kind of feeling from that scene, from those men. But then you sit with it. And there's poetry and there's lyricism, and they talk about loving their home and something else happens that's more complicated. And you're right, it does happen because you're there for long enough that all of that stuff can be in the space.

Richland features a choral performance inside the Hanford nuclear reactor, one example of the ways the community uses art to grapple with its nuclear legacy.
Helki Frantzen
Courtesy of RICHLAND
Richland features a choral performance inside the Hanford nuclear reactor, one example of the ways the community uses art to grapple with its nuclear legacy.

You use art in really powerful ways in this film. There's the songs, the chorus, poetry readings — I loved the music performance with the two women. And then of course, there's this really ghostly, beautiful sculpture from the Japanese artist [Yukiyo Kawano]. Do you feel like you were making a case that art is necessary for navigating these histories? Or did you feel like the community was already doing that, and that you're just chronicling it?

I think it was both, actually. The choral piece was already happening in the community, and then other things happen because I instigated them or created collaborative spaces. Like the sculpture was something that, Yuki, that's her practice. She had already made the sculpture, but putting it on that land on that date was an idea we developed together.

But absolutely, I think there's something very powerful — and I think about this a lot, even in terms of my own work as a filmmaker: what is it that a film can do or hold that's different from what a journalist can do with writing or what you might put in a scholarly book. I think film is really something that can hold feelings and hold things that exceed language, or maybe are things that are hard to articulate verbally, like what it feels like to be somewhere or what someone's face and body language looks like while they're speaking. I think there's all of this subtext and other information that's a little bit beyond what we can articulate consciously.

I think that's why I work in film is because it can hold all of this other stuff that's not just information. I think in the community, and with processing these things that are difficult histories, I do feel like art can hold community feelings in a way that's way beyond what people might be able to talk about in an interview. But that's really deep and complicated.

an archival image of two white men in safety gear in an industrial setting
US Department of Energy Hanford Collection
An archival image of workers at Hanford, where the government manufactured weapons-grade plutonium.

It's hard to ignore that your film released when the country was totally swept up in Barbenheimer fever. Was that just lucky press for you?

It was lucky press. And that's been interesting. Of course, I had to go see Oppenheimer for research. People have asked me about it a lot at screenings. I didn't know it was coming out. And of course, it's interesting to think across the two films. They're really not only different in scale and budget, but I think also in investments and approach and methods are pretty different.

What do you hope Richland adds to the conversation?

a film poster says RICHLAND on a blue backdrop. a silhouette of mushroom cloud hangs over statues, american flag imagery
Courtesy of RICHLAND

A lot, actually. I think Oppenheimer, like a lot of Hollywood film, is a way of thinking about history that's through, like, one great white man who shaped history. As someone who identifies as a feminist maker, I'm always also interested in thinking about history, but in a much more networked and relational, uncomplicated way, where history is never made by one great man. But it's something that happens across so many different spaces and stakeholders, and impacts so many different people in different ways.

To me, to really think about history, it's really important to think about small, everyday histories and all of the ways that those histories overlap with each other or contradict each other. It's just a really different set of methods. But then in that different set of methods, I think it's really important to hold those stories of what happened with Indigenous land dispossession, when all of the Manhattan Project sites were built. What happened with downwinders in the community when nuclear weapons were detonated on U.S. land? What happened in Japan? I think it's really important to think expansively about who's affected by history. And I think Oppenheimer — that's just not its project to really touch on all of these different spaces, but a lot of that is left out of the film.

"Richland" screens at the Milwaukee Film Festival on Monday, April 22 at 2:15 p.m. at the Downer Theater. Find tickets and more information here

Lina is a WUWM news reporter.
Related Content