Nuclear panic has been part of American life for years. Whole generations, past and present, have defined their childhoods on the fear of nuclear annihilation—but tucked up in the snug little pocket known as the Northwest one small town sees things differently. In Irene Lusztig’s new documentary “Richland,” premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival, we are introduced to a mindset of pride, shame and unrelenting identity that comes at a cost. “Richland” is a unique and heart-wrenching portrait of a town willingly taken advantage of and is a necessary documentary in an age of nuclear unease.
The film tells the true story of its namesake town, a small Washington state suburb positioned right next to the Hanford Nuclear Site. It was active back in the 1940s when Richland was a working town producing weapons-grade plutonium—the very ammunition that was responsible for the atomic bomb devastation on Japan’s Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The residents of Richland don’t see this as an indictment, though. They see what they produced all those years ago as an “accomplishment.”
Right off the bat, “Richland” sets up a rather interesting situation that is not so much a story as it is a life. The life of a place and of a people, all of which are intrinsically tied to a legacy of pain, terror and unmitigated death. It’s a complicated life at that, entrenched in a situation that is far from black and white.
The documentary does a fabulous job of immersing the audience into the psyche of Richland’s residents and the nationalistic nature, of sorts, that they bring to every part of life in the small Washington town through a wealth of absorbing interview bites. Despite the fact that many of them are immersed in a massive clean-up project to try to rectify the nuclear damage done to the ground in much of the area, they still hold fast to the notion that they’ve made something for and of themselves by dedicating their lives to nuclear production.
The film expands on itself, bringing in as many stories as it can to fully shape exactly how Richland and its legacy have shaped the lives of all of those who have ever had connections to it. It’s sobering to watch and slowly be immersed in the root emotion present in Richland: devastation. Lusztig finds no story too small when it comes to this moral conundrum and she fills the runtime with varied declarations of both pride and regret. After all, everyone in this world is so different and to see so many juxtaposing takes on this kind of complicated legacy is, in and of itself, engrossing.
The film does meander a bit at times, seemingly taking the long way around via tangents before coming back to where it was going all along. The pacing in these instances starts to falter and becomes quite noticeable considering how the front half of the movie keeps a tight and sharp tempo. Some stories seem as though they’ll never connect in a real way to the thesis statement at hand, but even if it’s in the abstract Lusztig’s subjects always meet her where she intends to have them go: to the heart of what Richland really means to them.
The film also takes into account the blistering normalization of violence we have undergone in the United States, much of which has accelerated in recent years. Between the Richland sports teams proudly displaying the mushroom cloud as their logo and the town’s overall sentiment of accomplishment about their place in the history of nuclear weaponry, the movie doesn’t hold back from charging these citizens, in its way, with the shameful side of their pride.
It’s a smart balance, both in what Lusztig was able to coax from the Richland locals and in how she edited these conversations together to build something of a parable. Editing one’s own work is certainly a perk in that there is no middleman for your ideas and this definitely paid off for the overall impact of Lusztig’s documentary.
Despite the murder of land in the Richland area, it’s a beautiful town with so much to offer visually, which cinematographer Helki Frantzen captures with a gorgeous and eerie precision. The focus is on the land itself, showcasing its broad and beautiful fields that sit atop nuclear matter in the soil below. The town’s particular personality is also nicely encapsulated through crisp images of its community centers, the places that the locals thrive in—and to that end, the locals themselves.
Frantzen shoots these people with such reverence and respect, giving them all of her lens generously as a plane through which to connect with the audience and make them understand why they might, deep down, resent what Richland has made them. The land and the people are equal in her eyes and because of this, their stories feel more intertwined than they already are.
“Richland” is a thought-provoking and important documentary that is unafraid to lay bare how people embrace destruction if there is a place for them inside it. It is also unafraid to counter that mindset with the truth about the cost of dancing with the devil—and that’s what gives the film its power. Despite the fact that the story becomes a bit long-winded and drags in pacing in parts, “Richland” is never boring, wholly fascinating and it certainly has the complication of the human condition to thank for its compelling heart.