Irene Lusztig directs ‘Richland’.
A U.S. nuclear company town stakes its identity on its little-known atomic origin story in this examination of the habits of thought that normalize the extraordinary violence of the past.
Words from Irene below.
What inspired you to first approach the Richland community and tell their story?
I first visited Richland for a day in 2015. At the time I was working on a different film project, Yours in Sisterhood, where I was filming in communities all across the US, meeting strangers and inviting them to perform and respond to letters that had been sent from their town to Ms. Magazine, the first American mass-circulation feminist magazine, in the 70s. One of these many letters, written by a Ms. reader who shared the story of losing her Hanford-worker father to cancer, led me to Richland. And someone put me in touch with Trisha Pritikin, a downwinder activist who grew up in Richland, as a possible person who might be open to reading my Richland letter on camera. I ended up filming Trisha reading for Yours in Sisterhood and later filmed with her again for Richland—she’s the person in Richland who gives a tour of the baby graves section of the old cemetery.
Trisha suggested doing the filming for Yours in Sisterhood behind the high school, where there’s that giant, wall-sized mushroom cloud exploding out of a capital letter R (which you also see in Richland), and, sensing my curiosity, she also took me on a little driving tour of town, pointing out the alphabet house where she had grown up and telling me about her childhood. Although my visit was really brief, the town, with its celebratory and hyper-visible mushroom clouds stayed with me and, over the next few years, started to take shape as a series of research questions.
I’m often drawn to thinking about places and communities where there’s something that’s being actively worked through about its own history, and I knew there was something interesting happening in Richland.
I’m often drawn to thinking about places and communities where there’s something that’s being actively worked through about its own history, and I knew there was something interesting happening in Richland. I wondered what it meant for a community to proudly display a mushroom cloud as a heritage symbol. During the initial period of Trump’s presidency, I was also developing a lot of questions about the structural forces that shape conservative worldviews and why white working class voters so often choose to support ideas that are directly harmful to them. And some of my questions did come from a personal place—my father-in-law was a lifelong nuclear worker and is now a Trump voter, whose biography is similar to a lot of the Hanford workers I eventually met in Richland.
I should add that I usually start a project with a set of questions, or guiding curiosities—things I want to spend time thinking about that form a kind of constellation (rather than a message or goal or known outcome). Richland presented itself as a space that might allow for a really complicated thinking-through and wrestling with many interlocking questions about the west, conservatism, patriotism, nuclear legacies, and historical trauma.
How did you connect with artist Yukiyo Kawano and what was it like to bring her perspective and work into the film?
I knew very early that it would be extremely important to include a Japanese perspective in this film about how we live with nuclear legacies. But, at the same time, I felt very committed to a place-based method of working, and felt strongly that place should be the central thing that holds all of the ideas and perspectives in the film—so something like going to Nagasaki to talk to Japanese people, or even going to Seattle—where there’s a larger Japanese community—didn’t feel like the right approach. So, I think I was kind of patiently listening and waiting for a while to figure out what would be the right way to incorporate a Japanese voice in the film.
I felt very committed to a place-based method of working, and felt strongly that place should be the central thing that holds all of the ideas and perspectives in the film.
I first met Yuki in a zoom room of Hanford stakeholders in a “listening session” hosted by the Manhattan Project National Historic Park in the spring of 2021. At the time, they were holding these zoom information-gathering sessions where they were inviting a variety of kinds of Hanford stakeholders to share their thoughts about what stories are important for (or missing from) our national nuclear memorial spaces. I was struck by the serious emotional labor Yuki was taking on, showing up as the only Japanese person in a somewhat hostile space dominated by white, pro-Hanford old timers. After the zoom call, I looked up and learned more about her amazing art practice, and then reached out to see if she would be open to chatting with me. Initially I wasn’t necessarily thinking about filming with Yuki, but as we talked and stayed in touch, I started to develop the idea of inviting her to meet me in Richland. Although she’s not “from” Richland, I felt that her presence in the community was an important intervention.
We’re the same age and have a lot in common as artists who make work about historic trauma and memory. The idea of bringing her ghost bomb sculpture onto former Hanford land—the image that ends the film—emerged in conversation and over time and felt very collaborative.
The interviews feel very genuine and leave a lot of space to the people on camera. What was your approach with these people, in order to have them feel comfortable and free to share their stories?
My approach to talking with pretty much anyone on camera is just to lead with my genuine curiosity about their lives and to be a good and non judgmental listener. I truly think being a “good interviewer” isn’t much more complicated than just being with people in a way that feels present. I think when people feel like they are really listened to (rather than that I am a filmmaker with an agenda trying to extract a soundbite) it’s easy to make a space with people where they are open.
My approach to talking with pretty much anyone on camera is just to lead with my genuine curiosity about their lives and to be a good and non judgmental listener.
I also think about making listening space when I edit—I cut onscreen conversations with people in a way that feels slower, and think about building a full sense of an encounter with someone (rather than, again, quickly extracting a soundbite and moving on to another person). I think giving people space and fullness on screen can also make the viewer of the film a better and less judgmental listener.
That said, I did know going into this project that Richland has a long history with feeling judged and misrepresented by “outsider” media, so I always took time with people to explain my approach carefully—I would share with everyone that I was committed to spending a long time in the community and getting to know it with complexity, and I think sharing that with people helped them set aside some of their reservations and concerns about outsider anti-nuclear agitprop.
Another film on the atomic bomb, Christopher Nolan’s ‘Oppenheimer’, has been released this year as well. Is there any specific correlation between the release of ‘Richland’ and Nolan’s film?
I am not usually a big blockbuster person, but I did go see Oppenheimer this summer, because I knew people would start asking me questions about it! It definitely started to feel like a bit of a professional research obligation to go see what Hollywood is doing with American nuclear history right now.
Even though the timing of these two films releasing around the same time is a total coincidence, I’m sure festival programmers are noticing the connection, and I do think this big mainstream Hollywood film is making the Manhattan Project feel zeitgeist-y in a new way.
I wanted to really think intersectionally and make space to consider overlapping impacts of the US nuclear weapons program on a wide range of different communities and people.
That said, I think our two films are very different in terms of their investments, commitments, and approach. I’m extremely interested in thinking about history, but not in the kind of “great men” history that we are often served in popular history and biopics like Oppenheimer. Hopefully my film does some work to expand and fill in some of the small, local, everyday narratives that often get left out in the grand sweep of “great men” storytelling. In making Richland, I wanted to really think intersectionally and make space to consider overlapping impacts of the US nuclear weapons program on a wide range of different communities and people. The Richland community presents many opportunities to film with scientists and nuclear experts—which is the aspect of the Manhattan Project that Oppenheimer (and, I would argue, most of our national nuclear heritage museums and sites) is most focused on—but I mostly avoided those spaces of scientific expertise and instead looked for opportunities to film in the kinds of spaces that Oppenheimer overlooks—like in tribal spaces that were profoundly impacted by the US nuclear program, or with downwinders like Trisha, or with a Japanese atomic survivor like Yuki.
What are you reading at the moment?
Torrey Peters’ Detransition, Baby.
- Dawn Bonder, Daniel J. Chalfen, Marci Wiseman
- Executive Producer
- Irene Lusztig, Sara Archambault
- Director of Photography
- Maile Costa Colbert
- Music & Sound Design
- Komsomol Films
- Production Company