Tribeca 2023 Interview: Filmmaker Irene Lusztig Discusses Her New Documentary, Richland

While the summer movie season will feature a lot of discussion about Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, which tells the true story of the man known as “the father of the atomic bomb,” there should also be just as equal discussion about a documentary premiering at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. Richland tells the true story of how a small town in the state of Washington played such a critical role in the Manhattan Project, and yet it’s not as widely known as it should be.

Back in the early 1940s, before America’s involvement in World War II, Richland was a small farm town of roughly 300 people. When America entered the battle, and the atomic bomb was starting to be discussed, the U.S. government stepped in and turned Richland into a housing location for many nuclear plant workers. The town’s population ballooned to 25,000, and ever since then, many of its residents take pride in the fact that their small town played such a big part in the Second World War. The high school mascot is the Bombers, there’s a restaurant known as the Atomic Café, and several streets are named after elements involved in making an atomic bomb. That’s just a select few examples.

But there are also many residents and outsiders who don’t quite understand the celebratory aspect of something that killed off many people. In addition, a giant chunk of land in Richland is now forever contaminated because of the Hanford Site, and many residents’ family members have died because of the exposure to the radiation they endured while working at the plant.

Richland aims to share both sides of the argument and features voices from those who want things to stay the way they are and why the town’s involvement in the war should be celebrated and remembered. But there’s also another side that wants to scale back on the celebratory aspect and have people see the devastation that it caused. The documentary’s main message it conveys is how, in such divisive times, people can have these conversations in which they disagree – but they can also respect each other’s opinions. It’s a fascinating documentary that explores the history of a little-known town that was a key factor in American history, while also simultaneously serving as a reminder of the importance of having healthy debates.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with the director of Richland, Irene Lusztig, ahead of the film’s premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. We discussed how the approach to the documentary was to show both sides of the argument in an even manner; if there’s a possibility of the nation ever going back to having reasonable discussions about hot-button issues; and the biggest lesson she learned from making the documentary. The full transcript can be read below.

Thank you for taking the time to talk about your movie; I really enjoyed it. And I loved how it evenly presents both sides of the argument where you have those who want to preserve the history and preserve the community and the symbolism of it, but then you have those who want to not exactly get rid of it but try to find some alternate way to kind of celebrate that history. So, was that always the approach that you wanted to take with this movie? Or did that kind of come along as the movie was being filmed?

Yeah, that was always the approach I wanted to take. And I think I, [at] the very beginning of the project, was really interested in trying to take on that idea of a heritage that is cherished, but also really, maybe problematic or connected to something with the violent history. And, you know, I think that is a set of questions that we’re thinking a lot about with monuments in the south and lots of other spaces in terms of how we’re thinking about our own history in this moment. So yeah, that was definitely the beginning of the project; [it] was wanting to really just try to understand and think with people about what it means to be attached to something that’s a difficult heritage or difficult symbol or difficult history.

Yeah, we live in such a divided time where you mentioned all the statues of Confederate soldiers and other people that were very big historical figures. Do you think there’s ever a possibility where we can just go and have it be where it used to be where it’s not as divided? Or do you think our nation has become so divided that it’s kind of hard to get back to where it was?

Yeah, I mean, I think, for me, personally, the challenge I made for myself going into this project was, could I spend time with people who I think maybe have personal politics that are really different from mine? And what would it feel like to just try to make a space where I approach people in a way that’s really generous and where I listen and where I maybe use the same framework that I would use for a really different kind of project that maybe is more aligned with my personal politics? So I think that was the prompt for myself was to see what it would feel like to do that. But to answer your question, I think it’s really hard to. There’s not a lot of willingness, I think, to listen, and I hope this film makes a kind of listening space for people to come into. But I don’t think it’s easy, and I don’t think it’s common, and even around the space of Hanford that I’ve spent a lot of time in, I think it’s very rare to find spaces where people who are coming in with these different positions are actually listening to each other. And I’ve been in a lot of meetings and rooms of Hanford stakeholders where they’re just shouting their different positions and not actually listening to each other. So, I think it’s hard to do that in this moment. But that was what I was interested in; [it was] thinking about belief systems and listening and how to listen across different kinds of belief systems.

I agree. I do wish we kind of could come to an agreement of some kind and not be as divided on each other. So, when you actually went to start working on this project, did you have much pushback when it came to wanting to film it? Or were people pretty welcome to it?

Yeah, there was initially pushback. I spent a lot of time in the community. I spent four years and it’s a small community, so people would see me over and over and over again, at big events and public things and meetings. So, I think people got to know me. And part of the resistance, I think, is that a lot of work has been made about Hanford that’s very critical, or that comes out of more of an investigative journalism space that’s just kind of using Richland or Hanford as a kind of negative example of something bad about the nuclear industry. So, I think the community is really sensitive to outsider journalism and outsider portrayals. I spent a lot of time meeting people before I filmed. [I was] spending time with people and explaining the way I work to people – so, telling people I may work over a long time. There’s a real commitment to coming back and spending time. I’m not going to show up for a week and then make a big exposé. I’m not an investigative journalist; I don’t have an agenda. So, I think it was helpful to people to hear those things about the way that I always work. And, yeah, I would say people were actually, once they got to know how I work, people were actually very generous and very welcoming, and I think people in the community really want to be seen and heard in a way that’s more complicated than maybe how they have been. The only things that were more challenging to get access to were government spaces, like the nuclear reactor that I filmed in a few times. That was a Department of Energy permissions process that was more complicated. And working with the tribes was also a more complicated process. But, in terms of just folks in the community, people were super welcoming once they got to know what I was up to.

Well, on that Department of Energy spot, you could only go to like a certain area, because a lot of that was just blocked off, because it’s radioactive still, correct?

Right. So, I definitely could not wander freely around the nuclear site. Some of it is extremely controlled. Some of it is extraordinarily contaminated. And, yeah, it’s huge. The site is 600 square miles. So, there’s actually a lot of land. And some of that is, you know, there’s buffer land that used to be part of the site that’s been given back to fish and wildlife that’s now a nature preserve, and that’s the very outer perimeter of the site. And there is the land where the tribal planting happens at the beginning of the film. That is Hanford land, but the tribes have access, and it’s not so contaminated. And then there’s tourism, which is interesting. So, there are a couple of nuclear heritage tours that are run by the Department of Energy. So that historic B reactor, which is where the Nagasaki bomb plutonium was made, which was the first industrial-scale nuclear reactor in the world, is open to tour groups that you can take a bus, which you see in the film, and just go look at the nuclear reactor. Anyone could go to that as a tourist. But, in order to film there, I needed the Department of Energy’s permission. And then there’s a second tour you can take where you go around. It’s called the pre–Manhattan Project Tour, where it shows you the ruins of the community that used to be on that land before the government seized in the 40s. And there are a few images – like, you see that abandoned high school building at one point in the film that’s on the site. And that’s part of that pre-Manhattan Project tour. But, yeah, you can’t roam around the site.

You said you took four years to make this documentary from when you began to when you got completed?

Yeah, although I had first been to Richland in 2015. So, I was thinking about it even before I started. So, 2019 was my first production trip. But I was already reading and thinking about it from even before.

Out of curiosity, because of 2020 and 2021, was a lot of it delayed because of COVID?

It was, yeah. There was, like, a year and a half maybe where we couldn’t go at all. So yeah, the shooting, there was kind of a pre-COVID and a post-COVID shooting. So, I did a bunch of shooting in 2019 before COVID. And that was lucky. All the stuff, like the parade that was for the 75th anniversary, all of that 75th-anniversary celebration stuff happened and in fall 2019, and there was a big chunk of time where I couldn’t go. And then I was able to go back in the spring of 2021. So, there was a break, but I had a bunch of material already that I could edit and think about. There wasn’t any lost time.

Yeah, a lot of the archival footage and everything kind of goes so smoothly together that it didn’t really feel like there’s a huge gap. When I was watching. I noticed there was the parade, and then they had the meeting where everyone is wearing their masks. And so, I was just kind of curious if there was a delay at all.

Oh, yeah. There was like a year and a half where I wasn’t shooting. And that community, because it’s very conservative, that was a community where masking and vaccination was extremely contentious. And yeah, so that was one of these communities where it was a very exclusive issue. So, there were moments where it didn’t feel super safe to be there, yeah.

How did you come up with the idea to have the townspeople read the poetry in the book? A lot of the poetry is really beautiful, and they sing those songs. Did you just find it and then have them read it? Or were they more than willing to read it because it’s part of their history and everything?

Yeah, I mean, a lot of people know that book in the community. So, the poetry is all from one book that’s called Plume. It’s a book by a poet named Kathleen Flenniken, who’s based in Seattle, but she was actually born and raised in Richland and has worked on the Hanford Site herself. The first iteration of her career, she was an environmental engineer before she became a poet. So, she’s someone with a really deep relationship with the community herself. And, so, that book is all poetry about her childhood and about Richland and about Hanford and, I think, really about her process as an adult of trying to reckon with a childhood that she remembered really fondly, but also trying to just think in a new way about things she learned later about the kind of really violent legacy of where she had been raised. So, I found this book pretty early in my research. And I think I got really excited because it’s really a book about feelings. And I was really interested in spending time with people in a more emotional way. And like not so interested in like the facts of the science and the technology, which is more like what people expect you to want to talk about in in that community at least. So, I had a sense that that book might be a way for people to [not only] open up, but also for people to collaborate in a different way. And I would say all the things in the film that are more staged or more performative are very collaborative with people in the community. And I like the idea of just making a space that’s more participatory, where people are bringing something to the project and thinking about what they want to present in the film. Some of the musical performances were also like that. But, yeah, the poetry, I would just bring the book with me when I was filming with people and just invite people at the end and ask them if they wanted to pick out a poem and read it.

Yeah, like you said, it kind of gives that break between explaining all the history of everything, and now just kind of going into the reading of what has come from the project. I think it’s beautifully done – just them reading it and sharing the backstories and everything. Do you think there may come a time when the history behind Hanford and the history of Richland is not as celebrated as it is now, or do you think the community’s going to hold to it pretty well and still try to celebrate it with the Bombers and everything?

Yeah, it’s interesting. I mean, the high school students who are in the film, I think, they have a sense that’s very different of how young people are thinking about their history. And I think in that younger age group, there’s a lot more openness to just throwing stuff away or building a new thing. And, you know, these are kids who’ve grown up with the internet, and with lots of outside information, and maybe in much less of a bubble. And that community has been a real [bubble]; it was a secret city in the ’40s. So, literally, nobody outside the city even knew that it existed, and everything about how it was structured was, I think, made to keep the secret contained. So, it definitely has a history of a real insider/outsider dynamic. And I think that that’s shifting with younger people. It’s also a really quickly growing community; It’s a very fast-growing area. Tri-Cities is the whole area of Richland, Kennewick, and Pasco. It’s three cities in South Central Washington, and that’s, I think, the second largest metro area after Seattle. Tons of people are moving out there because it’s much more affordable than the coastal Pacific Northwest. So, there are now people starting tech companies, there’s lots of agriculture, [and] there’s wine. So, there are a lot of newcomers who are not connected to the nuclear industry. So that’s also, I think, changing the texture. So, yeah, it’ll be interesting to see. But there are also a lot of multi-generation Hanford families. And, interestingly, the people who work in clean-up now, many of them are the same people who worked in plutonium production before, or their parents worked in plutonium production. Like the guy you see at the beginning of the film, who’s a 44-year Hanford worker. [He’s] someone who just seamlessly moved from making plutonium to cleaning up plutonium, and he still checks into the same site every day to do the opposite of what his job used to be, but it’s still on the site. So, I don’t know; I think things are changing in the community, and they will keep changing. But, on the other hand, I think that kind of schism between conservative and nationalist worldviews versus not, I think that that difference is maybe hardening. So yeah, we’ll see.

When you have that [scene] toward the end with the high school students talking to each other, I think it’s really great to get that perspective as well. When you found them, did they all share their opinions, or did you just gather them in that and then have that conversation to where it was in the film? Most of them agreed, and then there’s that one guy that’s kind of like playing devil’s advocate. Did he already say he was or did he kind of just express it in the documentary as you were filming it?

I mean, I didn’t talk to anyone before. I actually met them all the day that we did that filming. One of the kids in that shoot was the field producer. So he was the person where I was like, “Can you just get a bunch of people together that you think would be interesting or have interesting things to share?” So, he really picked the people out and kind of did the casting. So, I didn’t know what people would think. But I knew, like, my kid is around the same age as these kids – I have a 16-year-old – so I think I knew that’s going to be a real different space of just being open or being willing to think about things in a different way from maybe their parents’ generation.

What was the biggest lesson that you learned from filming this documentary and gathering the different perspectives?

Gosh, I learned so much. I mean, I was just learning all the time. I mean, I think it confirmed things that I already kind of believed going in around just what can happen when you listen to people in a way that’s generous and patient like I said. That was really rewarding. People in the community that I’ve shown the film to really like it, and that’s amazing for me. I just think the power of listening and making a listening space has been really important. I didn’t know anything about the subject matter or about Hanford or about nuclear weapons production. So, it was a huge learning process for me.

And then, my last question for you. There was that recent New York Times article that just came out about the Hanford project, and this documentary premieres at Tribeca, and then, to a degree, you have Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer coming out. So where do you think the popularity of Richland is going to go from here? Do you think it’s going to be more popular than it already is? Or do you think it’s going to kind of stay the same? Where do you think that popularity is going to go after all of these perspectives come out?

I don’t know. Had you heard of Richland before?

I had not, actually.

Yeah, it’s weirdly hidden and, you know, it was part of the Manhattan Project, but it’s, like, the least well-known. I think people know Los Alamos, or they know the Nevada test site. And [Richland] is, like, this huge 600 square miles of land that many people have not heard of. I think Pacific Northwest people tend to know a little more about it because there’s concern about radioactive materials leaking out of the site. But yeah, it’s managed to remain quite hidden from view. And it was interesting that this article came out. That article could have been written at any point in time in the last 20 years. It’s not news. It’s something that’s been ongoing for and will be ongoing for, you know, 24,000 years, which is the half-life of plutonium. So, yeah, it’s interesting that there’s been this new attention. It’s big, and we should be paying attention, right? It’s a huge amount of land that’s profoundly contaminated forever. Also, in ways that there’s a lot of risk for the waste in the single-shell concrete tanks that are leaking. So, there are plumes leaching out toward the Columbia River and toward the groundwater. And all of that is something that we should be very concerned about, but it’s not. Yeah, it’s not as well-known as it should be.

Yeah. Well, I’m interested to see, you know, where the popularity of Richard’s going to go from here. And I’m excited that this documentary is going to be presented at Tribeca. I hope it does get a huge following after this because I like it a lot.

Thank you.

Thank you for taking the time. It was a pleasure talking to you, and I hope everything goes well with Tribeca.

All right, thanks.

On behalf of Cinema Sentries, I would like to thank Irene Lusztig for taking the time to speak about Richland. The documentary has officially premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival at the time of this posting.

David Wangberg

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