Does a nearly forty year old documentary still hold relevance? A newly restored HD version of Dark Circle is streaming on various outlets. The film, directed by Christopher Beaver, Judy Irving, and Ruth Landry, was shortlisted for Oscar consideration in 1983 and won an Emmy in 1989, when it finally made it to PBS as part of the POV series.
The film’s focus is plutonium—the byproduct of nuclear power generation and a key component of nuclear weapons. Plutonium is also a very dangerous contaminant. Even minute amounts can cause mutations and cancers that may take years to show up. The film moves between the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant in Colorado and the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant that was being constructed in California. (Since the film was made, the Rocky Flats facility has been closed and is the sight of a massive “superfund” cleanup, and the Diablo Canyon plant is in the process of closing.)
The idea in making the film was not to search out experts or politicians, but to turn the camera on some of those most affected. In Colorado we meet a mother who worries about the ground contamination from the nearby Rocky Flats plant. When they bought the house, no one told them about the plant or about the contamination. In California we meet activists who are trying to stop the construction of the plant noting safety considerations.
The film also ventures to Hiroshima and Nagasaki to recall the human toll of the bombings of those cities, and also some of the experiments that the US military conducted with soldiers, many of whom later developed cancers (few of which the government would admit to being responsible for).
In some ways, I see the film as a bit of a time capsule. The world was much different forty years ago. This is in the midst of the Cold War with its theoretical underpinning of mutual assured destruction. We were continuing to build our stockpile of nuclear weapons. The Rocky Flats plant was turning out three new plutonium detonators a day. Nuclear power was not in its infancy, but it was still new enough to raise concerns. (That is not to say it still doesn’t. In fact, we probably have even more concerns now as then.)
Yet the film continues to speak, even though the filmmakers may not have been aware at the time of all the issues involved. Although we have reduced our nuclear arsenal, there are now other countries—including North Korea and Iraq—that have developed their own nuclear programs. After Fukushima, the world has a better picture of what kinds of catastrophes nuclear power can bring.
But perhaps the most relevant part of the film is the look at the business behind the nuclear power and defense programs. The film shows how the military-industrial complex worked to override concerns citizens had. The government, supposedly responsible to the people, was unresponsive to those who raised issues about contamination or construction problems. If the film were made today, it might talk of “corporatocracy” and the way corporations wield power over the government. (Note: one of the reasons it took seven years for the film to make it to PBS was that the filmmakers refused to remove a section that named the companies involved.)
It would have been helpful for the filmmakers to make a short update to tack on the end of the film to show the ways things have changed and remained the same. One of the new issues is that as we try to move away from fossil fuels, there is a new push for more nuclear power. It is hard to be completely anti-nuke, but it is also hard to accept it.
Dark Circle begins streaming on Apple TV, iTunes, and Amazon March 30,
Photos courtesy of First Run Features.